When I Was Cruel (Island Records)
By: Alex Steininger
After a string of collaborative records, comprised of ballads, and a live 4-disc set, When I Was Cruel has been a long time coming, the album fans have been waiting for Costello to make. Reaching back into his angst-ridden youth, calculated and more mature, Costello's wisdom drives his rage in the lyrics, while his gift for crafting the most exquisite melodies help make each song sparkle, whether he's writing a gorgeous pop song or a seething rocker.
On "45", the album opener, Costello, who wrote the song on his 45th birthday, reminisces back to when he was a kid, playing his 45rpm records on his stereo. Using the songs as a guide, he examines life through his 45 collection, measuring what he sees and feels with the music. His trademark voice in tack, he snarls and sings, changing from the slow verses to the roaring guitar chorus, delivering two very different, but equally melodic pieces.
Another one of Costello's charms is his humor. Taking a shot at an industry weasel in "Spooky Girlfriend", Costello tells the story of a man who wants to find a girl to have control over ("But when she does as she's told/ We'll all turn platinum and gold"). And a girl who is willing to flirt ruthlessly to get the fame she craves ("And then perhaps hitch up her dress/ 'Cos when the flashbulbs explode/ She's such a sensitive soul...").
Using his gift of melody and lyricism, he crafts a sensitive balance between delicate pop and rawness, using his voice to sculpt the tune, switching between a whisper and a fearless falsetto, all roughed up with a snarl as only he can sing it.
On the album's first single, "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)", Costello gives new meaning to the term power-pop. Driving a fast, up tempo melody with plenty of rock, Costello keeps things hook-laden and mellow enough to grab the top 40 crowd, but pours plenty of vinegar in the music to keep things lively.
Fleshing out a danceable pop song with horns, "15 Petals" adds texture and flair to the record, as he wraps the melody around a percussion-heavy groove, centering the song on his voice, and giving it his all, delivering the song with unabashed passion. This is Costello letting you have it without you knowing it, using your subconscious in his favor.
But, what would a Costello record be without a beautiful pop number? When I Was Cruel has plenty of gorgeous pop songs, but one in particular, "Tart", will have you sweating and crying, as Costello's voice rings out the emotion in your body, and the pretty melody brings out the joy in you.
And, though this record contains fifteen tracks, all memorable, "Alibi" sums up everything Costello is about in less than seven minutes. When Costello snarls "You deserve it, 'cause you're special. Alibi. Alibi. Maybe Jesus wants you for a sunbeam? Alibi. Alibi," his sardonic tongue echoes over a refreshing melody, glowing with hooks, and as pretty as they come.
A song about excuses - both good and laughable. Costello takes on human nature with enough satire to make you chuckle, twisting in seriousness to make you take notice, and stand out lines like "there were soldiers who were killed, but refuse to die" that prove his lyrical ability is at its best.
Giving you a glimpse in the verse, the mystery builds, before the hook hits you and the chorus comes around. One of the catchiest songs on the album, the chorus shines with simple chord progressions played on an organ over a sturdy rhythm, allowing you to hear what a great songsmith Costello is, one of the best melody makers of all time.
For those that crave all-out rock, the punk spirit lives on in Costello. "Daddy Can I Turn This?" is loud and fierce, ignited by the spark that helped earn Costello the punk tag early in his career, before he revealed that he was so much more. A nod at what he has done and what he can do now, this is the perfect tune to unleash the rock.
Hands down the best album of 2002, Costello still has it - and plenty of it. This is an unquestionable masterpiece, an album without a flaw, one that holds strong regardless of what attracts you to Costello - the melody, the lyrics, his voice, or the instrumentation. I'll give it an A+.