Elvis Costello and the Imposters
Sun May 19,
Paramount, $39.50.

A wise man once warned me to run away screaming from any conversation that begins with the following 10 words (but what the hell): "I was discussing Elvis Costello with a musician acquaintance recently..."--anyone still here?--anyway, this acquaintance broke it down like this: Elvis writes too many songs. He should stop now, because the songs aren't good anymore, not as good as his old ones, anyway. Not as good as "Beyond Belief," for example, or "Shipbuilding." Not as good as all those Best Songs Ever he's written over the years.

And that's pretty much how the line on Elvis Costello's recent music has been writ.

When people say Elvis Costello, they mean Elvis Costello 1977-1983, with special dispensation for 1986, with only squares granting quarter to 1989 and beyond. Writing on Salon.com, no less a Costellophile than Ira Robbins recently pronounced that Napoleon's dynamite has fizzled, that the lie Elvis told in "I'm Not Angry" has become true. As evidence, he compares Costello's new album, When I Was Cruel, to This Year's Model, his 1978 world destroyer (my world, anyway). Okay, fine. But that's like comparing anything to This Year's Model--it's almost not fair.

Of course, most reviews of When I Was Cruel have been raves. When an artist manages to survive as long as Costello has, the People-Rolling Stone-Pulse axis of evil tends toward approval; the angle practically writes itself and the story becomes official. This is Elvis' return to rock, they say, after several albums of professional collaborations with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Anne Sofie von Otter; it's the end of his sabbatical, an opportunity to dust off the bitter wit and acid melodies of old and face the world he confronted with such gleeful aggression in his glorious past. But the bitch about a glorious past is the way it haunts the eternal present. When the real listeners and critics weigh in, it becomes clear that even though a new record is on the table, we're all still thinking about how amazing Elvis used to be.

And even though I've got a feeling I'm gonna get a lot of grief, I feel compelled to protest E.C.'s treatment by the hardliners. To argue that Cruel represents some kind of quantum failure, or worse, a betrayal of his former glory, is absurd; it misses that his entire career--and not just the time since Spike (which I will defend forever)--has been spent defiantly evading the obvious choice, right down to his chord progressions.

Taken on its own, When I Was Cruel certainly demonstrates that Costello's take on rock songwriting (he calls it a "rhythm record") has changed in the last 24 years; the songs are longer and the lyrics less disdainful, more circumspect. His old pal revenge is a young man's game, and Elvis doesn't make the mistake--as he did on 1994's great and terrible Brutal Youth--of pretending he still needs, or even wants, to play it. This Elvis Costello sounds far too confident and adventurous (not to say indifferent) to be worrying about "getting back" to his young man's anger. He is revisiting old haunts, but he's carrying different tools in his pocket, new eyes in his head. Lusty finger-pointing has given way to sober observation. The characters are just as vain, verbose, and broken as their early counterparts, but they're discovering that, as the narrator of "My Little Blue Window" admits, "the poison pen now requires the antidote."

If it sounds like I'm running in circles here, I am. Despite my compulsion to defend Cruel against its attackers, and to defend its author against the charge that his genius died before he got old, the truth of the matter is that I don't really love the record either. Not yet, anyway. It sounds fantastic, and sports several excellent songs--"Tart," "Window," and "Daddy, Can I Turn This?" are especially fine--but the album as a whole feels lugubrious. Many songs, like the title track, begin brilliantly, then stretch on for interminable verses the hooks can't sustain. "Alibi" runs 6:30, about the same as "I Want You," the emotionally crippling masterpiece of Blood and Chocolate. But where the latter song is an ever-swelling dirge of lust and recrimination, the former is a self-satisfied sprawl, riding its meager refrain into a sun that never seems to set. And--wait, did I just compare When I Was Cruel to Blood and Chocolate? Jesus, it's almost not fair.