"Don’t call it a comeback!" boomed LL Cool J in 1990, hitting on a truth that resonates even stronger today. Although an impressive number of middle-aged performers have recently challenged the myth that old folks can’t rock, they’ve also reminded us that no one ever comes back, not really. Not Paul Westerberg, who last month found a replacement soul on Stereo. Not Bob Dylan, who grabbed a Grammy with one album (Time out of Mind) and a couple years later stepped over the nominating committee’s heads and most of 20th-century musical history with another (Love and Theft). And not Elvis Costello, who just beat his previous first-week sales record with the new When I Was Cruel (Island), his first solo album in seven years and his most astringent collection in more than twice as long.
It’s not that all these records are commercially and culturally inconsequential (though that may be the case) — just that no "comeback" is ever a complete return to an artist’s prime. At their best, these new releases offer something far more intriguing: a rapprochement between the encroaching cruelty of middle age and the fading beauty of youth. Despite the buzz that Costello’s new disc is a second Blood and Chocolate (the 1986 album in which he and the Attractions proved one last time that they could be "Uncomplicated," as the opening cut put it), almost all the reviewers have recognized that the truth is, well, more complicated.
"When I Was Cruel is a collection of tough tunes and textures that recalls — but doesn’t recycle — the records that endeared him to his earliest admirers," writes Barry Walters in Rolling Stone, setting off his qualifying clause as strongly as punctuation will allow. What Walters and other reviewers don’t mention is that by now this was surely the only way for Costello to go. After spending a decade-plus on the formal possibilities of pop songwriting with everyone from classical divas to Burt Bacharach, this abstruse crank has made it pretty clear that when he doesn’t tie his art to the real world — be it through politics, the true grit of true romance, or just the ebb and flow of musical fashion — his tricky melodies and trickier lyrics just float off into space (call him the Crab Nebulous). Occasionally he floats away here, as on "Episode of Blonde," a tune whose awkward title hints at the second-rate Tom Waits disaster to come. "She had the attention span of warm cellophane," he spits in one throwaway line. Warm cellophane? "You need to get out more," quipped David Letterman one night in the late ’80s as his bespectacled guest wrapped himself in it (metaphorically, of course).
And yet on this album, Elvis does get out, even if only to meet up with the younger self who’s camped out in the penthouse lobby. He plugs into a 15-watt Sears amplifier, and that helps his guitar bark with some of its old bite. He rehires former Attraction Pete Thomas for Pete’s sharp, agile, simple drumming. Most important of all, he gives former Attraction Steve Nieve the nod to play his keyboards from the dirty garage. And he justifies all these earthy touches with songwriting and arranging that, as Walters said, recalls his earliest years, like the hyped pop punk of the debut single, "Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)," or the languid noir of "When I Was Cruel No. 2," with its "Watching the Detectives"–style guitar.
Costello pulls this off by connecting the old moves to the present, the way any good postmodern artist would. And like those of any good postmodern art, the album’s pleasures are mostly formal ones. If, as he told John Leland in the New York Times, he chose the title When I Was Cruel because he no longer dreads the abusers of power that he disdains, that meaning is even less clear from the music than it is from the title. With its moments of self-analysis (the neat triple metaphor of "45"), its parade of femmes fatales (distant in "Tart," dethroned in "When I Was Cruel No. 2"), and its hint of murderous armed forces (the aural diptych "Dust 2 . . . " and " . . . Dust"), When I Was Cruel is a lot like Costello’s string of solid albums from the mid ’80s, only newer and more accomplished. The production tricks are far subtler than anything on Imperial Bedroom, and the Elvis of Punch the Clock would have never dared the bopping jazz and arabesque glissandos of "15 Candles." Yes, there’s more work for him to do before he fully connects with the cruel world to which he once bid goodbye. But there’s no other way for him to get there than by blazing one more new and uncertain path.