Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Entry Point: Elvis Costello - When I Was Cruel

When we are lucky, we find out about a new artist with the buzz leading up to their debut, and we can then follow them throughout their career, watching their growth and progression. Being there from the ground floor, seeing everything, in context, as it happens, is the best-case scenario. It's through that symbiotic relationship that we can feel more a part of someone's music, and we develop a relationship with that artist that can deepen throughout time.

But let's be honest; that kind of luck is exceedingly rare. The vast majority of the time, we find our way to our favorite artists long after that point of genesis, and the particular time and place we come on board will affect everything we will ever think about them. Pick the wrong time, or the wrong album, to begin with, and a career's worth of great music can be thrown aside by a negative first impression.

I would love to say that I was there in 1977 when Elvis Costello released "My Aim Is True", and I heard the spark of a legend igniting in the grooves of the vinyl. I would also love to say that I heard "Armed Forces" at a time when Thatcher's England created the venom dripping from his lyrics. I can't say either of those things. I was not alive when those records were released, nor was I cognizant of Elvis when he was releasing "King Of America" and "Blood & Chocolate". My story begins somewhere else entirely.

In the early part of this new millennium, I took advantage of the developing catalog of history that was made possible by the internet. Back when the site was simpler, and easier to navigate, I would spend hours at a time reading reviews on of albums and artists I had never heard of, going down the rabbit hole of suggested artists that radiated from my few favorites.

Reading through the credits, I saw the name Elvis Costello listed as singing backing vocals on The Wallflowers song "Murder 101". A few clicks later, I was staring at a lengthy list of albums, many of which were rated as perfect five star efforts. I read through all those reviews, multiple times, and was intrigued enough that I knew Elvis Costello was someone I needed to listen to. The problem I faced was how to decide where to start, when the discography was as large and accomplished as his.

The year was 2002, so I was fortunate that news was just breaking that he was about to release a new album, his first rock album in many years. That struck me as the perfect place to start, although that reasoning doesn't stand up to logic or scrutiny. It was all I had, so I went with it.

That album was "When I Was Cruel", a record I have come to realize was a bizarre place to begin. For starters, despite Elvis' reputation for being a master of pop songcraft, there is little to no pop influence on the record. Likewise, the integration of drum loops, sampling, and scuzzy garage rock production didn't mesh with the stories I had read. I was expecting glistening guitar pop, and instead got a record that was ahead of its time, in terms of fusing rock music with electronic sounds and digital recording.

The dark production of the record is both its greatest strength, and the reason it is so rarely mentioned when listing Costello's career highlights. Listening to this album for the full hour it takes to reach its conclusion is not always an easy task, with the sound hurled out of the speakers with muffled tones, the guitars more jagged than ever, Costello's rasped and sneered vocals pushed to the point of breaking up. That particular atmosphere enhances the bitter coming of middle age the album represents, the realization that with age does not come wisdom, only new observations on cruel misery.

But at the same time, that sound is too abrasive for the album to be universally beloved, even when it contains some of the best songwriting of Elvis' career. Frankly, it's a difficult album to listen to, which I say as someone who considers "When I Was Cruel" to be one of my most formative experiences as a music fan.

While Elvis has engaged in long form composition before, with "Tokyo Storm Warning" and "I Want You", he mastered the craft here. "Alibi" is one of his best ever songs, the first and only time that he was able to turn the rote monotony of repetition into something greater. That song slowly builds the tension through its cro-magnon bassline, expertly breaking up the increasingly deranged excuses we give with brief flashes of ironic melody. When he sings "if I've done something wrong, there's no ifs or buts, because I love you just as much as I hate your guts", it's not just a clever one-liner, it drives to the very core of the song. We both love him for writing such addictive music, and hate him for toying with us.

In another setting, "Tart" could have been one of the most beautiful compositions of his career. With a tragic piano figure, and a lyric that uses banal detail to squeeze the acid out of life's fruit, the song is nearly flawless. But the dense production strips the song down to its dirty basics, as Elvis and Steve Nieve aren't able to polish the song into the sequel for the lush "Man Out Of Time" it begs to be. We're left with the sense of disappointment in not getting the song we want, which is astutely captured in the ironic title.

That is the story of the entire record, a set of songs that on the surface delivers the raucous Elvis Costello that fans had clamored for, but underneath contained an experimental songcraft that indulged Elvis' penchant for denying people what they wanted.

A challenging record of this sort was precisely the wrong way to introduce myself to Elvis Costello. I listened to the record over and over, and failed to grasp the intricacies of what I was hearing. I still went back and listened to the 'classic' records, and they gave me the sugar rush I was craving. "My Aim Is True" and "Armed Forces" were the immediately gratifying records that gave me faith in Elvis, while "King Of America" was my songwriting bible when I took up the task myself.

But all along, there was a nagging though in the back of my mind. I would occasionally return to "When I Was Cruel", and each time I did, with time and experience helping me grow, I found more and more to love. Now, as I listen once again, I'm struck by how it is "When I Was Cruel", above all the other great records Elvis has made, that I most vividly remember. Yes, it was my first, but it also stands out as a more sophisticated venture than it was ever purported to be. There is a grand artistic statement buried in the layers of these loud rock songs, and even if it took me years to get there, I believe I have uncovered them.

I feel certain that I would have become a fan of Elvis Costello, regardless of which album I chose to listen to first. But with luck pointing me to "When I Was Cruel", I have to believe I wouldn't be the same kind of fan. If I had started with his most pop records, I would have likely brushed aside everything else that didn't fit my simple tastes. By starting with such a challenging record, and burning it into my mind before I knew better than to move on to greener pastures, I unknowingly set myself on the path to challenge myself as a listener. In some ways, "When I Was Cruel" is a reference to the way I became an Elvis Costello fan, and now it is a record that I can't imagine being without.

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