I came late to Elvis Costello. In college, when the dorm emptied out on the night of the Attractions concert, I stayed in my room, listening to Eric Dolphy. My friends all had Elvis Costello records, and though there were songs on them I loved, I didn’t love the voice singing them. Once you’ve acquired a taste for something, it’s difficult to explain what put you off at first. Try to remember, say, the bitterness of beer. Or the fishiness of fish.
On hearing that I was reviewing Mr. Costello’s new record, When I Was Cruel (Island), a German friend of mine said, “I can’t stand the way he sings! It’s like he yodels.” Yodeling is too extreme, but I know what my friend means. Mr. Costello’s voice is a terraced hillside. Movement up or down proceeds by discernible steps rather than a seamless flow. There is a kind of flip or click in his voice as it moves between registers. It’s a marriage of opposites, a delicate foghorn, a gruff flute. Which brings me to a story.
If you come late to Mr. Costello, it may develop that you are holding a baby in your arms. I certainly was, one ragged night in 1998. The setting is a pre–Civil War duplex in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It is 4 a.m. (The owner of the duplex, a Mr. Douglas Hardy, later kicked us out for having a baby, so I want to take this opportunity to send him my warmest wishes.)
In the dead of this early October night, the baby in my arms is crying. She has been doing so for the last six hours. Every night for the last 21 days. With the endurance of a Kenyan marathoner, she paces herself through the mountainous terrain of her nightly caterwauling. Behold the flared nostrils, the pumping fists! Like a bystander with a cup of water, my wife can only offer the breast. But the baby doesn’t even pause as she takes it, and races on.
And so now, finally, with all hope of quieting her lost, the wailing newborn has been put into my care. I, who have no milk. In my arms, the furious infant screams and shakes. I might be swaddling a chainsaw. Millions of years of evolution have gone into this cry, human baby after human baby slouching, in infinitesimal increments, toward this blood-curdling shriek that will ensure parental protection and thus survival. The decorous mewlers, the considerate whiners, these have long been selected out of the human infant population. Now there are only the tympanum-bursting banshees, the Tasmanian devils with the breath control of a La Scala soprano.
No matter. I have a trick up my sleeve. Quickly, I carry the oscillating infant up the stairs to the boom box in the top-floor kitchen. Pressing the play button, I hold her innocent, apoplectic face right up to the speaker. In a moment, the voice of Mr. Costello flows mellifluously out-and the baby stops crying.
Only three things ever worked. The sound of a bathroom faucet on at full blast. The white noise of the vacuum cleaner. And Elvis Costello singing from “Painted from Memory.”
There is something about Mr. Costello’s singing voice that gets under people’s skin. Pleasantly so, in many cases. But not always. And this, I suspect, is what lay behind my initial resistance to his so-called “yodel.” I had to get used to the background hum, to the vacuum-cleanerish rumble behind even the most sweetly trilled of his literate, often opaque lyrics.
Mr. Costello may himself feel that his mellow hum has been getting too much air time of late. On his last two records, he’s been teaming up with other artists-Burt Bacharach and Anne Sofie von Otter-and singing ballads. When I Was Cruel is the inevitable reaction to all that crooning. It’s a return to origins, stripped-down and loaded with hard-charging rhythms that bring back the old New Wave.
By the artist’s own count, this is his “first record in seven years.” The absolutely breathtaking All This Useless Beauty came out in 1996, though, so I count six. Six or seven, for purist fans it has been a long wait, and they will find here a handful of gems. Mr. Costello was smart to call the record When I Was Cruel . The title song, which is listed as “When I Was Cruel No. 2″ is the best on the record, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better song on any record released this year.
As a lyricist, Mr. Costello excels in avoiding clichés or turning them on their heads. His lyrics have an elevated, book-smart tone without ever being “poetic.” At the opening of “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” he says of wedding guests speaking about the groom, “Not quite aside, they snide, ‘She’s number four.’” Say what you want about “snide” being used as a verb, Mr. Costello gets his meaning across nimbly and economically here.
Other times, his avoidance of the commonplace merely leads him into obscurity. Most of Mr. Costello’s lyrics sound fresh to the ear, but the more you think about them, the less they mean. For example, there’s this from the up-tempo “15 Petals”: “Mussolini highway / There’s a frankincense tree / I picked some up there to carry with me.”
When Mr. Costello hits a lyric right, he hits big, and that is the fortunate case with “When I Was Cruel No. 2.” After the wedding ceremony, the oft-married groom looks at his new bride and makes the following observation: “She’s starting to yawn / She looks like she was born to it / But it was so much easier / When I was cruel.”
In a single line, Mr. Costello explodes the notion that people get toughened up by life and suggests the opposite: that age brings only increasing vulnerability as well as remorse and pity. You don’t expect this, listening to the opening of the song, and it hits like a thunderclap. Meanwhile, Mr. Costello’s singing carries the freight of this knowledge lightly and, as it were, beautifully. Few people write songs as good as this, at once tuneful and serious, gratifying and wise.
The collaboration with Mr. Bacharach, Painted from Memory , was suffused, as its title suggests, with a sense of the broken home and marriage abandoned. Part of getting back to basics on When I Was Cruel involves lightening up on the tragedy. And so we have songs such as “Spooky Girlfriend,” as catchy and satisfying a tune as Mr. Costello has ever written, and “Episode of Blonde,” in which Elvis sounds, possibly in a reference to Blonde on Blonde , like Dylan.
There are jokes on this record, too. On “Spooky Girlfriend,” Mr. Costello sings: “She says, ‘Are you looking up my skirt?’ / And when you say ‘No’ / She says, ‘Why not?’” And on “Episode of Blonde,” he reminds us that “Every Elvis has his army / Every rattlesnake its charm.”
Mr. Costello, who is 47 years old, recorded When I Was Cruel primarily in Dublin, aided by a “kid’s beatbox with big orange buttons.” If hanging out with Mr. Bacharach brought out his wistful side, being in Dublin makes Mr. Costello boyish again, a little cheeky and even reckless.
The title track is punctuated with a single-syllable sample-what sounds like “un” with a hard U-from “Un Baccio e Troppo Poco” by an Italian pop star called Mina. The horn section indulges in a touch of salsa on some songs. The teenager’s beatbox pounds throughout others, and there’s some noisy guitar and shouting on “15 Petals” and the rousing “Daddy Can I Turn This?” On the verge of 50, it’s nice to feel 25 again, and you can hear this in the music.
Still, the “rowdy rhythms” Mr. Costello says he wanted for this record are not all that rowdy. There’s a sense that he just wants to see how it feels again, like a dad taking a spin on his kid’s skateboard. I don’t mean this in the cutting way it sounds. Mr. Costello rocks perfectly well on this record; he hasn’t lost anything. But he has always been running from his sweeter sound, as we all run from our best selves, because they seem too easy somehow.
With Mr. Costello, there is always some dullness, however. It’s always him singing, always that voice . There’s a sameness to it after awhile. But he’s skilled at mixing up the play list. Mr. Costello’s albums, more than most, leave a record of their passage in your mind. Very quickly in the silence between songs, you hear what’s coming next.
The baby mentioned earlier is now 3 1¼ 2. When I played When I Was Cruel for the first time, she came running into the living room, shouting, “Nice CD, daddy!” I didn’t tell her that she’s been an Elvis Costello fan since she was 3 weeks old. But that’s the way this review ends. No more colic. Nice new Elvis Costello record. And we don’t live in Brooklyn anymore. We live in Europe, where landlords can’t kick you out for having a kid that cries all day for Elvis.
Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of the novel The Virgin Suicides . His new novel, Middlesex , will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this September.