Further proving how stale and unpalatable rock has gotten, Elvis Costello returns from hibernation and reminds us what good music sounds like. His latest release, When I Was Cruel, is an album whose instrumental density and lyrical wit simply embarrasses all the bands and solo acts of late that have been sitting on the fence of mediocrity. The album’s 15 tracks each dabble in rhythmic layers and thoughtful instrumentation. The bassline of “Spooky Girlfriend” spastically hops around the fretboard while the drums play hard-to-get and the back-up doo-doo-doo’s weave in and around distant horn lines. The stripped down “Alibi” puts Costello’s vocals up front with the bass and the kick drum, leaving the guitar and keys to fill in sparse backgrounds. “Episode of Blonde,” the clear climax of the album, is a piano-heavy tango jam with an old-school sing-along chorus, a Costello trademark that is noticeably absent from the rest of the album. Ever the consummate wordsmith, Costello’s wordplay ranges from devilishly playful in “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” a track about marriage (“Not quite aside, they snide ’She’s number four/There’s number three by the door/Those in the know, don’t even flatter her, they go one better/She was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her’”) to utterly tactile in “Tart” (“Wild with a blackberry bush/There were blossoms of cherries to crush/There, at the edge of the asphalt tempting fingertips/They stain your hands, press too hard/They’ll color your lips/But the flavor is/Tart”). With lyrics this sensuous and music this seductive, When I Was Cruel can’t help but leave you with a pleasant aftertaste.
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