If his own musical output is any indication, Elvis Costello must have the most eclectic record collection of any A-list singer/songwriter of the last 25 years. In fact, the varied list of 500 indispensable records he put together for Vanity Fair a couple years back only reinforced the seemingly directionless personal path he was traveling, wandering from a classical album with the Brodsky Quartet (1993's The Juliet Letters) to the forthright orchestral-pop he put together with Burt Bacharach (1998's Painted From Memory). However you value those, or anything he has done since 1986, if you were raised on the sneering, guilt-ridden pub-rock assaults and insular wordplay he used to turn out with wondrous frequency back when he was an angry young man with the original Attractions (in their prime, one of the leanest, meanest backing bands in rock history), you were probably thrilled to hear that When I Was Cruel is a return to form, a proper rock album after years of what some have considered ego-driven experiments.
Turns out that When I Was Cruel is many things at once: claustrophobically dense with verbiage; overlong; punchy, with the straight-ahead riff-rocking single "Tear Off Your Own Head" reminiscent of the glories of "Radio, Radio" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding"; overflowing with ideas (at times to its detriment); melodically complex; mushily produced (damn your residual influence, Mitchell Froom!); passionately sung; and mostly mesmerizing. It's by no means perfect. You could excise both versions of "Dust" and one or two others, plus lop a few minutes off a couple more, all to the album's benefit. But there's enough for the Costello cultists to lose themselves in until he returns with another proper album (next up is, God forbid, a ballet score).
I don't mean to sound cynical about his wandering eye. In fact, I love pieces of Painted From Memory and more than a couple albums' worth of his last half-dozen propers. But his need to traverse the entirety of the musical map has served him poorly in terms of the albums he's delivered over the last 15 years. By the time of the great Blood & Chocolate in 1986, Costello had already withdrawn any consideration of accessibility for his audience; the aesthetic of direct, clear expression in both lyric and music, never his primary concern, would soon go on extended hiatus.
That clarity only shows up on When I Was Cruel in fits and starts. If you have any intention of making sense of it all, the shelf-life on this record could approach eternity, considering that half the tracks are nearly impenetrable, the result of Costello's penchant for mixing metaphors and his need to write the least obvious melodic progressions whenever possible.
"Episode of Blonde" is the one sinking in hardest after 20 or so plays. It's a deranged tango with a brilliant chorus ("Did her green eyes seduce you and make you get so weak/ Was there fire engine red that she left upon your cheek/ It's a shame you had to break the heart/ You could have counted on/ But the last thing you need is another episode of blonde"). The verses undercut its wallop. They're so oblique in their detailings of shattered Hollywood moguls and Tom Waits castoffs that one can do little but sit back and revel in Costello spitting out the words, his voice a mass of jagged, nasal brushstrokes on a canvas of horns and longtime Attraction Steve Nieve's piano and Hammond organ.
Elsewhere we have hints of autobiography, as in "45," which cleverly trades on both the end of WWII and those magical 7-inch slabs of vinyl. We get obtuse character sketches ("Soul for Hire" and "Spooky Girlfriend," which like the interminable overrated title track are growing less interesting with each airing). Another favorite, "Alibi," has a running time and subject matter that suggest an update of "I Want You," one of Costello's most brutally honest takes on love and its first cousin, obsession. If you can get through the haze of images, there are some crippling confessions here. Costello's voice, way up in the mix throughout, launching assaults on the material, gets right to the heart of the matter when he allows himself a bare platform. "Alibi" is darkest, with its admission that "I love you just as much as I hate your guts," but the ugly insecurities and emptiness at the center of love, so often his subject of choice, repeat themselves. The mid-tempo piano-led "Tart" (Nieve is showcased much more than drummer Pete Thomas, whose unremarkable playing is hindered by a muddy bottom end and poorly mixed bass on nearly every cut) is another variation on that theme. It's hard not to hear the last track "Radio Silence" as the sound of retreat, if not resignation, when Costello promises, to a fade, that he's "maintaining radio silence from now on."
Ultimately, I suspect Costello non-devotees will find that too much effort is required to get into these songs and there may not be sufficient emotional payoff to justify the investment. The production and mix are fussy to a fault, emphasizing texture and detail over beat and thrust. All of which means Mr. MacManus may be now preaching entirely to the converted something that might not present a problem for them, given that the preacher is, at least for a brief time, giving their preferred sermon again.