Listen Up: Wednesday, May 30, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Elvis Costello

When I Was Cruel (Universal)

By Matthew Smith

After a long — often more commendable than memorable — detour through standards and classical, Elvis Costello returns to his early rock form with When I Was Cruel. Sort of. He’s older now, and the acceptance of wisdom has tempered the anger of brutal youth.

All of which has critics gushing glowing adjectives, but first impressions and final verdicts frequently differ. The question, then: Is When I Was Cruel a classic or another one of Costello’s academic exercises?

Hard to say. No obvious grab-hold hit appears on first listen. But subsequent spins reveal more and pull you in. The payoff does pay off.

Although a few tracks don’t work, there is much to praise. The nervous stutter of the opening track, “45,” sets the stage for Costello to tackle English disillusionment, the joy of discovering music, and mortality. “Daddy, Can I Turn This?” features some of Costello’s best guitar playing and arguably one of the most honest, unsentimental yet touching takes on father/daughter dynamics. “Alibi,” concerning those little excuses we lean on, is a breathtaking epic of Beatles proportions. There is a lot to savor here.

Last year, long past their prime, REM surprised us by releasing one of their best albums ever. With Cruel, Costello proves rock can age gracefully without devolving into mush or the sorry sight of old men pretending to be 19.

Although fairly well known, Costello never received the recognition or sales numbers of such far inferior contemporaries as Sting and U2. That the man still makes music this honest, raw, and plain damn good is amazing and always worth listening to.


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