Sometimes finding out you're wrong is a real treat. In 1996, when Elvis Costello released All This Useless Beauty, a ballad-heavy disc showcasing songs he'd written for others to sing, my friends and I were convinced that certain sides of the Elvis we loved were vanishing for good: He had released lukewarm soundtrack collaborations and a so-so album of covers; he'd made a beautiful record with the Brodsky Quartet that signaled a growing interest in classical music; he was writing songs with Burt Bacharach. To quote the bespectacled one: "Why can't a man stand alone?" More importantly, would he ever rock again?
Six years later, Elvis has released a great new record that is all his. When I Was Cruel does have a couple of ballads, but with the exception of "Alibi," none of them owe much to his recent flirtations with Bacharach-era songcraft. More often, the band rocks, as on "45," a catchy single which commemorates the songwriter's birthday with the obvious rpm metaphor. It's not as angular as the post-punk tracks that started his career, but lines like "every scratch, every click, every heartbeat" are delivered with a crisp snap that belies the rocker's middle-age.
Costello also ventures further into techno-trickery than he has before, as on the title track, which paints a grown-up, angry young man, accepting with some bitterness the fact that he's no longer a threat to captains of industry. A tiny snippet of an Italian song is repeated every five seconds or so, a sample of a woman singing what sounds like (but isn't) "oh no." Throughout, the record's production serves to unify it, to amplify the songs' moods and to prove that, whatever broom closet he's been investigating lately, Elvis still hasn't left the building.
And every time the artist proves his aim is still true, fans like this one are tempted to revisit albums we may have judged too harshly. It's a great time for that, as Rhino has embarked on an ambitious reissue campaign — one in which every album up to 1996 is remastered and repackaged with lyrics and copious notes by the man himself. They come with more bonus tracks than the Ryko reissues of a few years back (in many cases, with more bonus tracks than there were songs on the original album), and those tracks are presented on a separate disc, so that each album's intended structure is preserved.
Rhino's strategy is to release the records in groups of three, in an order that is quasi-thematic instead of chronological. It's a weird move that is also kind of savvy — by placing the above-maligned All This Useless Beauty in the first trio of releases (six are out now), Rhino manipulates fans into taking it seriously. After listening to the bonus disc, one is inclined to do just that. There, you'll find that Costello did some great, weird work during this period, like the Brian Eno duet "My Dark Life," and "The Bridge I Burned," which has a melody that jumps around like the most adventurous jazz. Stripped-down demos of songs that actually were on the album are revelatory, too.
Naturally, more attention is going to be paid to other titles in the series. Spike, which scored a hit with "Veronica," features the whole album in demo version, plus a lost version of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band track "Stalin Malone," on which Elvis did a spoken-word track. Two of Elvis' "back to rock" efforts, Blood & Chocolate and Brutal Youth, were released in the same batch so they could duke it out — the former kicks the latter's ass.
But the cool thing about big reissue packages like this is the idea that some lucky bloke out there is about to buy My Aim Is True and This Year's Model for the first time. There's not a single wasted track on EC's debut, and most of the songs are classics. From the first ("No Action") on, his follow-up Model completed the one-two punch, smoothing over the sonic production of True without diluting its fire one bit.
Around this time, the songwriter told an interviewer: "The only two things that matter to me ... are revenge and guilt. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn't exist in my songs." He was lying through his teeth, of course — but he was cruel back then. Fortunately, though he's dispensed with most of the venom, Costello hasn't lost his bite.
When I was Cruel
(CD, Island Records)
Elvis Costello Reissues
(CDs, Rhino Records)