Thursday, June 1, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1013: Elvis Costello

With my work week over early, I am looking forward to some extended time off. I can already feel a mixture of content and weariness seeping into my bones. Maybe I’ll take a celebratory nap. But first, I’ll write a music review!

Disc 1013 is…When I Was Cruel
Artist: Elvis Costello

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? Something very troubling. Am I supposed to know what these creatures are? Are they some famous piece of pop art, or just a meaningless piece of kitsch? I have no idea, I just know their vacant alien stares fill me with dread. And those hands! Those hands! Why do they have to be so…tiny?

How I Came To Know It: I bought this album for Sheila around the time it came out, likely for a birthday or Christmas gift. I knew she liked Elvis Costello so I bought this on the chance it would be good and because it met my criterion of only buying her music I wouldn’t ordinarily buy for myself (because otherwise, isn’t it just a gift for me?).

How It Stacks Up:  Although Elvis Costello has almost thirty studio albums all we have is this one and a greatest hits package. We used to have “The Juliet Letters” but it got reviewed and sold long ago for being…not good. “When I Was Cruel” is much better.

Ratings: 3 stars

Elvis Costello is one of those artists that just exudes artistic endeavor. Whether early or late in his career you always get the impression he is looking for the next musical frontier. While I’ve never loved him the way his talent deserves (or his ego craves), I enjoyed listening to “When I Was Cruel.” It is an underappreciate record with a lot of god stuff going on.

This is one of those obscure later-career records that is primarily in the collections of hardcore Costello fans, who are likely to reference it at parties with “It isn’t as famous as his early stuff, but it is an amazing album you just have to have.” I am known to make similar comments about certain Blue Oyster Cult or Alice Cooper records.

I have never waxed poetic about Elvis Costello, but I like him and “When I Was Cruel” explores a lot of concepts. The album fuses jazz, new wave, punk and pop into a mélange of sound that stretches the record pretty thin, but never quite loses its cohesiveness.

The record starts with “45,” a semi-autobiographical tale where Costello describes two people meeting in 1945 in the euphoria of victory following the Second World War, and nine years later giving birth to a son (Costello was born in 1954). He then cleverly twists the 45 metaphor into the child’s early love of music, bought back in the early sixties on 45 singles. The echoing refrain of “45” grounds the song through the images, drawing you on a single thread through the years with the repetition of metaphor. Costello even toys with the gun image the number conjures up, but the song is really about one boy’s love affair with music. It’s a tale with which I can relate. My first two 45s were John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” and Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.” I’ve still got them both.

This is followed up with “Spooky Girlfriend” which is more playful than spooky, leaving you with the impression that Elvis has his tongue firmly in his cheek. The jazz-style drum and bass lends a lounge singer quality to the song. The bass line in particular is delightfully intricate, dancing around in the back of the mix, and occasionally coming to the fore only to shyly slip back as soon as you notice it.

When I Was Cruel 2” has some bizarre time signature that I’m too much of a neophyte to tease out. I actually think it has two time signatures going: one for the main tune and one for a woman sexily singing “un” over and over. Costello really gets how to use syncopation in pop music, and “When I Was Cruel 2” is one of the better examples of it. This record manages to play with jazz structures throughout, without causing me the usual frustration I feel when this happens.

Alibi” is a high point of the record, a song that is almost seven minutes long but flies by. In many ways this song is more like early Elvis Costello, but he’s adopted some of his new softer jazz edges into it without losing the magic of his original formula. It is an example of an artist growing, while not being afraid to show his roots.

The production is thick and rich and there are places where I wished there was a bit less echo, but maybe that would have just made the songs sound too sparse.

My biggest challenge with Costello is his voice, which I have never really liked. It is too thick in the middle and too sparse around the edges, and it always feels like he’s shaking his head pretentiously when he sings in the back of his throat, even though I’m sure he’s not.

Also, at 15 tracks and 62 minutes, “When I Was Cruel” is a tad too long. It could benefit from losing about three songs and 12 minutes.

The album ends with the atmospheric – almost electronic – “Radio Silence” featuring ghostly guitar reverbs and Costello singing high in his range (which I was surprised to find I preferred). It is a song that can’t help but evoke his early hit “Radio Radio,” as Costello explores the artistic process and the dangerous journey of creation that can lead equally to success or failure.

“When I Was Cruel” doesn’t always succeed, but it isn’t afraid to walk the road and see where it leads. For the most part, it led me to a surprisingly thoughtful and innovative record that I should put on more often.

Best tracks: 45, Spooky Girlfiend, When I Was Cruel No. 2, Dust 2…, Alibi, Radio Silence

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