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Old 03-16-2009, 08:25 AM   #66 (permalink)
Bulldog
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I think I've left this thread alone for long enough...

When I Was Cruel
2002, Island Records, Windmill Lane Studios


The cliche goes that a painter always paints, a writer always writes and a songwriter always writes songs. Therefore, after a good few years of doing bugger all with his musical output (although he'd written a few songs for Anne-Sofie von Otter the year before), Costello decided it was time to get his arse back in the musical ring. This, of course, meant hiring a band to take to the studio with. Keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas of the Attractions were called into service again, but this time there'd be no papering over the cracks of Costello's relationship with Bruce Thomas. Instead, former Cracker bassist and regular session musician (having worked with the Monkees, Dusty Springfield and Sheryl Crow among other) Davey Farragher filled in as the bassist for the sessions, and has worked as such for Costello ever since. His joining Costello's backing band, with his much more laid-back style than Bruce Thomas', led the the Attractions being rechristened the Imposters.

The dynamics of the backing band aside, Costello was, as I said earlier, looking to make an emphatic return to the music scene. But, what could have ended up as a rerun of a familiar sound as Brutal Youth had been took a completely different turn. What we get instead is more of an artistic departure than a homecoming - there may be faint echoes of earlier works on this album, but in the main we have a defiant, forward-thinking and at times unsettling body of work, defined as it is by its bleak lyrical visions and sparse beats. It's also far less melodious (in the main) than the man's previous work, relying on heavy rhythms, haunting synths and (sometimes) electronic drumbeats. Not what you'd expect from the guy then.

1. 45
There are, though, a few numbers which hearken back to the sound of Costello's older work, the album opener here. An unusual moment on this record, and pretty misleading as an opener, given its stuttering melody and vocal harmonies. A nice enough song, though nothing truly incredible. 7/10


2. Spooky Girlfriend
This gives you a better idea of the mood and textures which dominate the album though. The repetitive, synthetic rhythm, the lack of much audible guitar, the heavy bassline and a nice oddball lyric present Costello's new direction by the numbers. 8/10

3. Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)
Here's another return to more familiar territory, with a short, sharp piece of riff-driven rock. Again, pretty simplistic and straightforward alongside its bedfellows here but, again, a decent enough tune. 7/10


4. When I Was Cruel no: 2
And then there's this. Driven by a hypnotic drum machine beat, swathes of guitar and the haunting textures of Nieve's piano and a bizarre synth loop, it's an absolute killer of a song which would grace any best of compilation. It's true that lacks melodic invention (which drags a few of the cuts here down somewhat), but on the back of an intriguing lyric and the sonic soundscapes presented, at seven minutes it's not a second overlong. 10/10


5. Soul For Hire
The vein of synth-driven songcraft is carried over to the next track, the dense and floating Soul For Hire. It's not as rhythmically static as the title track and is another one of the most experimental and left-of-field Costello songs you're likely to hear. Unfortunately, despite the atmosphere that the heavy studio treatment gives it, not to mention a few interesting tempo changes, this is one of a few instances where it seems the man is trying perhaps a little too hard, making for one of the weaker cuts on the album. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination though. 6/10

6. 15 Petals
This same kind of songwriting though is given in interesting twist here, boasting the same synthesized atmospherics and a rolling drumbeat but this time overdubbed with Costello's horn arrangements. It adds a unique colour and a new texture to a song that could easily have turned out like Soul For Hire (and perhaps the preceding track should have been given this very treatment), yielding some pretty successful and deceptively upbeat results. 8/10

7. Tart
A terrific bassline, cryptic lyrics, but otherwise there's not so much to this number really. While being another fairly ambitious cut, it's a little too slow overall, perhaps a tad underthought, and not exactly what I'd call an album highlight. 5/10

8. Dust 2...
After the more forward-thinking string of songs which preceded it, this one hearkens back to an older sound, featuring a catchy riff and drum-heavy rhythmic sound, though unlike a certain two songs before it, this one is twisted into a much darker and far-reaching shape by a very rare Elvis Costello guitar solo. His lyrics are on form as well; a bleak and dark vision of I'm sure you can guess what upon a listen or two;

'If dust could only talk
What would we hear it say
Before it's brushed aside
Just as it's swept away
It's just the evidence
It's of no consequence
It's only flesh and bone
Why don't you leave it alone?'
8/10

9. Dissolve
The following number is another one which follows the typical rock song structure (with a harmonica thrown in for good measure), except this one uses a dirty, razor-backed guitar riff as its spine. Although not varying much musically or in its time signature, Costello's temple-vein-throbbing vocal delivery helps the cut above mediocrity, as well as the tight and efficient musicianship from the Imposters. 8/10

10. Alibi
Another contender for high-point of the album here. Rolling by on an easygoing yet pumping bassline and a frankly magnificent lyric, at six minutes it may try some listeners' patience a little, but for me it just oozes the venom and malice of Costello's greatest lyrics, which is another example of lyrical brilliance really benefiting a song's quality. This is probably my favourite bit of it;

'You were happy when you were poor
And more honest and that's your
Alibi, alibi
Sister is a whore, brother isn't sure
Alibi, alibi
You don't fit the body that you're trapped in
Alibi, alibi
Papa's got a brand new
Alibi, alibi'
10/10

11. ...Dust
Here's the sparse, distant continuation of Dust 2.... Although it features the added flavour of horn overdubs, it's a bit too slow and not as musically intriguing as its first part, and another one of the not-so-great moments on the album. 6/10

12. Daddy Can I Turn This?
And it's followed by this rather out-of-place song, which bursts into life with a prominent guitar riff. It's one more uptempo rock song but, frankly, not a very interesting one, and it's outdone nicely by the next song... 5/10

13. My Little Blue Window
...which is another one which sticks out like a sore thumb on this particular album, being led by Costello's acoustic guitar (and being one of the only places where such an instrument is actually audible). Although it sounds blatantly like an outtake from Brutal Youth or All This Useless Beauty, it's definitely the most melodic and straightforward pop song on the record, and serves as a great little slice of light relief from the more difficult moments on When I Was Cruel. 9/10

14. Oh Well
As the album nears its climax things take a much more experimental turn, starting with the slow and effect-heavy Oh Well. Although in most places the slower and more experimental cuts drag the album down slightly, the shortness of this particular song (bubbling just under 3 minutes as it does) makes sure this isn't the case. The lyric is interesting and darkly humorous enough to keep one's attention too;

'I had a dream once or so I thought
I'd be a pilot or an astronaut
I had a dream like that until I found
Even an astronaut goes into the ground
Life is just passing us, bye-bye
Oh well'
7/10

15. Episode Of Blonde
The penultimate song is another one of Costello's very best; a skewiff song with an unusual melody, punctuated by Nieve's jazzy bursts of piano and horn overdubs, ending up with some sort of crossbred, mutated form of jazz-rock, holding up a glorious lyrical rant. Sheer class in other words. 9/10

16. Radio Silence
The album does end on a bit of a weak note though, with another failed, synthetic experiment on Costello's behalf which finishes things on a bit of an uninteresting damp squib rather than a bang. 4/10

The Outtakes.
When I Was Cruel no: 1: The only known outtake from the Windmill Lane sessions in the earlier incarnation of the title track, which itself is a gorgeous piece of music and could easily have graced the album's final tracklisting.

So, summing up then...
While as an experiment it's not entirely successful, When I Was Cruel is nevertheless an admirably experimental comeback album - when Costello could so easily have churned out the album everyone would have expected of him (like Brutal Youth was), he took a daring and adventurous step into a new artistic territory here. Although there are a few duds here and there, overall it's a very good album indeed, and another one you should be on the lookout for.
8/10
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