Nobody likes bitterness Elvis, except sometimes in chocolate.
Katharina Lobeck 2002
Oh dear, oh dear, what has been happening in the life of Mr Costello? The man who once sang, "If they had a king of fools then I could wear that crown/And you can all die laughing because I'll wear it proudly" now proclaims, "cos I love you just as much as I hate your guts"("Alibi"). It's not as if an artist shouldn't be allowed to write material when he or she is having a bad hair day (think of Nick Cave on The Boatman's Call and remember how he melted every female heart with his tales of longing and loneliness), but bitterness? Nobody likes bitterness Elvis, except sometimes in chocolate. Unfortunately there is plenty of bitterness on display in When I Was Cruel and whereas in 1977 it looked suitably de rigeur, now it looks out of place. Perhaps he could be forgiven if the underlying music was taking bold new steps but, bar some extra modish loops and beeps, this is business as usual.
This is the sort of record (sorry, CD) you could put on at a dinner party for people of a certain age (i.e. people who remember punk because they lived through it) and no one would bat an eyelid. You would immediately recognise it as EC but you wouldn't necessarily know it was new. Yes, "Tear Off Your Own Head" has a nifty riff, but haven't we heard it somewhere before? "15 Petals" has an angry brass accompaniment and "Dissolve" a wailing harmonica but, sadly, it doesn't matter how the songs are dressed up: Mr Costello really is a man out of time - and this is not his. He almost wins your heart on "My Little Blue Window" when he pleads for a love "to crash through the pain" and provides us with a pleasing catchy tune, but then he blows it on the next track - "Episode Of Blonde" - by impersonating Tom Waits circa his Swordfishtrombones era. In the six years since All This Useless Beauty it seems that our Elvis is still throwing the toys out of the pram and, for a man of his age and stature it's not a pretty sight. As the man himself asks on "Tart", "Would it kill you to show a little sweetness?" Then you could play it proudly.