Paramount Theatre, 682-1414 $39.50-$49.50 8 p.m. Sun., May 19
I TRY NOT TO focus on ads in Spin too much, but this one caught my attention. It's Elvis Costello, standing with an electric guitar around his neck and a hand clasped against his head, back where he's still got some hair. Though his eyes are more subdued than surprised, there's something about him that says, "What have I done?" The advertisement's for his new disc, When I Was Cruel, and here's the best part: The text reads, "First Loud Album Since 199?." Point being, of course, that no one can remember exactly when EC last traded on his rep as a noisemaker or once angry young man, what with all the string quartet pieces, soundtrack contributions, cover songs, and Burt Bacharach collaborations that have consumed him for the past decade.
When I Was Cruel is indeed a loud set. The apocalyptic "Dissolve" rides a relentless, distorted guitar grind. And Elvis is still angry, particularly at the kind of folks who thrive on excuses. "You're stupid and you're lazy," he stabs bluntly in "Alibi." He prefers no pretexts: "If I've done something wrong, there's no ifs and buts/'Cause I love you just as much as I hate your guts." Throughout, the album feels like the return to form it purports to be. Costello looks back nostalgically, but smartly, at his own youth in the multiple-meaning opener "45." Elsewhere, he delivers some trademarked horn-rimmed fury with the album's first single, the spiky guitar workout "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)." What's more, he's backed on several tracks by keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, two-thirds of the original Attractions, the combo who poured sonic gas all over Elvis' emotional fires.
Yet for my money, When I Was Cruel is most intriguing in the way Costello seems to comment on his own shifting perspective. The title track offers one such fascinating admission. A narrator finds himself at a society wedding. Whisperers refer to the bride by her number—four—in the groom's string of marriages. "Those in the know don't even flatter her," the singer observes, "they go one better/She was selling speedboats in a trade show when he met her." It's a brilliantly caustic lyric. But back in the day, Costello would've put a line like this in his own mouth. Here he chooses to make it a somewhat more distant observation. Elvis the writer can still create that lyric, of course; yet it appears that the singer (and, we wonder, Costello himself?) doesn't dare speak it. In fact, the refrain revolves around an uneasy abdication of devastating judgments: "It was so much easier/When I was cruel."
The next track, "Soul for Hire," seems to bear out this shift in his emotional vantage. Who's the protagonist at the heart of this one? A defense attorney, of all people. It would, no doubt, be easier to write some sort of tirade against lawyers, especially in this, the Enron era. But Costello paints a sympathetic picture of a guy wracked by guilt. How can he sleep knowing his well-heeled clients committed dastardly deeds, while for years he gave short shrift to defendants for whom he was court-appointed? This is Elvis as observer, rather than Elvis the judge of, say, 1989's "Tramp the Dirt Down."
There aren't many folks who can pull off an analysis of their own art without falling into self-absorption, but When I Was Cruel does so engagingly. And it's loud, to boot. Man, this is—what?—like his first loud album since 199?.