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A number of correspondents have written in to inquire why it is I no longer contribute reviews to that venerable publication UNCUT. Well, your guess is as good as mine. Tho, reigning in my natural tendency to bitch about Big Fat Controllers of magazines who are quite happy to ring undeserved kudos out of the LESTER BANGS Nostalgia industry (a man whose motorcycle boots they're not fit to throw up on) but BLANCHE like frightened virgins when someone actually submits an even vaguely 'Bangs-ian' review, like I say, reigning that unworthy impulse in, I will just say that it seems to have had something to do with the following ELVIS COSTELLO review from 2002.

So: I will just re-print the piece and allow you, dear reader, to make up your own mind whether this was a carefully choreographed textual onslaught which actually acclaims Costello's work, with certain reservations, or whether it was indeed a senseless, overlong piece of spite which quite rightly led to instant dismissal and the ruling that I be banned forever from the UNCUT premises. (And there are, dear reader, be they ever so cunningly dissimulated, underlying premises.)

And N.B.: I have not used the intervening months as excuse or opportunity to change anything in what follows.


When I Was Cruel
*** , of course

I could write a book about who why what how, starting with howcum a man who once meant the world is now the jammy preserve of sickly South Bank sloes and whisker on my chin Jazz Passengery jams, and how we preferred him when he was the Marquis of Sad, aw shit there's nothing worse than seeing a working tough leave the Street, sigh, although that's bullshit of course, walk a mile in his shoes, hang around with dumb-ox rock and roll types long enough and YOU'D want to do concept albums with frosty-chill (hhmmm) classical babes believe me ... but, unfortunately, things HAVE changed that much in the last 15 years - while he was away, while we built up 10 years worth of U2 and REM (and, indeed, Elvis Costello) which everyone respectfully dutifully gave *** or **** in magazines like this but put a fucking UZI to our heads and COULD we hum a single melody or quote a SINGLE line? - that, truly, Old Tarmac Heart (or whatever the El he's calling himself this time round) could make the greatest album the world has heard since Highway 61 Revisited or Marquee Moon or ... This Years Model, but would it really make much difference to anyone but Greil Marcus and a few loony website obsessives? Once, whole council estates would sing 'Oliver's Army' or 'I Cant Stand Up...' and it would be like the sun coming up over the hill and THAT'S entertainment, sonny, and OK, say there ARE a handful of dark, cutting performances on When I Was Cruel... they are also so inturned and convoluted - so knotted fathom deep inside an acquired-taste Elvis Costello vocabulary - that I honestly CAN'T see anyone but Greil Marcus sitting down and working them out like some Inspector Morse crossword puzzle. (And I'm sorry - but that's worse than Dad Rock: that's Weird Reclusive Uncle Bill - He Never Married, Don't Sit On His Knee, Dear - Rock.)

So. What do you want to know?
Is this a "return to form"? Is this the "good" Elvis all we fortysomethings wait for every year like a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Santa Claus (or Joe 90 and Osama Bin Laden)? "Good" generally signifying a vengeful four piece rock knock knock knock full o' smudgy puns and itchy riffs and vacant blondes and dirty Macs (the MacManus kind, not the Macintosh type) like, yes, some kind of Inspector Morse (Code) of the Fender Jazzmaster world? Well, yes and no. The good news is that Elvis has caught up with the rest of the world and is no longer scared of remix/sampling/post-rap sonics. (Which, for all I know, that's BAD news to you: maybe you'll HATE the tricky new EC, and not find it at all Attractive enough, even if he does quote 'Watching The Detectives'.) So, my initial reaction to the dubby clicky clipped n hissy tweet and woof of tracks like "When I Was Cruel 2' and "Alibi' and "Dust" was a positive Wow-at-long-fucking-last-HELLfire-fucking-BRILLIANT! (Later, I did get to wondering whether they don't just sound good in the surprising context of an Elvis Costello song, and whether, in fact, you couldn't pick up any new Tommy Boy CD or Missy 12" and hear stuff a thousand times sharper.) EC has always had a weird relationship to music as sensual (as opposed to soapbox) thing; and if I had another 5,000 words I might go into the whole vexed Q/ of how (much) this links to his much trumpeted obsessions with Guilt and Revenge (especially the former, which no one ever wanted to know so much about alongside the sexy, Nick-Kent-kool latter) and thence to his not-so-often discussed Catholic background. (I will note that while researching these 500 words, with 500 hours of listening, listing, reading, dECiphering, I found that three consecutive songs on his last major CD, All This Useless Beauty, contained the word "sin". Not a good sign for one in his forties - me, I mean, doing all that trainspotter back-up.)

OK, put it like this: at 65 minutes When I Was Cruel is (like nearly every CD released these days) WAY too long; if he was less of the Mr Muso these days he'd see this, and clip, oh, 4 or 5 (of the, to be honest, 6 or 7) by-the-code-book 'Elvis Costello' tracks off it, and you would have an LP (in the old fashioned sense) as coiled, as urgent, as newsworthy, as concise and angry as could be. 'When I Was Cruel 2' and 'Alibi' are haunting, headbutty, hilarious, the best he has sounded for aeons: he sounds like a Psyche trapped inside an Age, not a muso punching his way out of a paper persona. These are punchy, throaty, bloodrush tracks - tanked up, let's have a big fucking row tracks - which effortlessly, spitefully, overshadow all the little Spiritualiseds and Radioheads and Starsailors blubbing and boo-hooing out there in Poor Me Land. Such tracks (and "Tart" and "Dust") are nothing if not eminently quotable - esp. the latter, a kind of 3 am Girls 'Desolation Row', from what I can make out - but there is also a whole lot of 2-e-z EC-by-numbers here too, with lines like "I want a girl to turn my screw /to wind my watch/ to buckle my shoe" (which, I don't know how he didn't capsize with shame when he put that last line down) and there's also WAY too much morality-by numbers, which, Elvis, I'd be careful using the word "whoring" about anyone else's vocation when part of your's is to introduce the despicable Grammies alongside Amanda Holden - bet you were hoping not too many people saw that, eh?, or maybe the opposite with a "new record to plug?" - in truth, there's too much here that's both pointedly obtuse in an overfamiliar EC way, and lazily ill considered ("She had the attention span of warm cellophane" just doesn't work as a figure), flash savagery for the sake of a good pun (and just what IS it with blondes?, like, his guilt over that fling he had with a lovely 'band aid' 20 years ago ought to have a fucking moratorium on it by now, you know?) which he never could reign in ...

So, sure, with a bit of savage self pruning and a bit MORE risk and space in the production ( fewer words, more echo) and he might have TRULY self reinvented; whereas, in 2002, no matter how much relatively better than His Last Few LPs, etc, this is, it's still Just Another Elvis Costello LP. Or, as a teenybopper friend just (cruelly) put it: "It's just more Mojo-man music to be politely filed away: who bloody CARES? Put So Solid Crew back on NOW!" (I quote Celine, and she thinks I mean Dion. What you gonna do, in 2002?) It's not fair, but it is history. I could write a book about it... but I'm stupid, and I'm lazy, just like you.

Ian Penman.

posted by Ian 4/29/2003 02:53:00 PM

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