As its title suggests, When I Was Cruel hearkens back to those bitter days when Elvis Costello was as vicious as the punks with whom he was first lumped. You know the man is back on track on "Alibi," when he conjures a sentiment that sums up the central conflict of nearly all his greatest songs: "I love you just as much as I hate your guts." He spews it in that vengeful, articulately unhinged manner that only he can muster.
It can be a problem for rockers with extraordinary talent who don't self-destruct: Costello still records each new release with care and creativity, yet he has lately faltered at funneling his considerable skills into something that resonates on the same scale as his abilities. But his first solo album in seven years does exactly that. When I Was Cruel is a collection of tough tunes and textures that recalls — but doesn't recycle — the records that endeared him to his earliest admirers.
Because he's so lyrically pointed and so melodically sophisticated, Costello doesn't often get credit for his similarly cranky way with a guitar. Cruel could change that. The insistent rhythms igniting immediate monsters such as 1978's This Year's Model have finally returned, this time taking their cues from retro-electronicaheads like Ocean's Eleven composer David Holmes. Loyal Attractions Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve play hip-hop beats as if they were punk, jagged and jabbing. "She slaps your face like a tambourine," Costello observes in "Daddy Can I Turn This?" while he and the band bang out garage rock. Elsewhere, horns blare, vibraphones tickle, and his singing is the sharpest and most emotional it's been in ages. Generous in its cruelty, Costello's latest album makes a master's gifts matter again."