With three Grammy nominations and, along with the Attractions, a pending induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2002 stands out as a particularly good year for Elvis Costello and company. While some cultural icons of the ’70s are watching their 15 minutes re-run on VH1, Elvis Costello has been writing the book as the most prolific presence in modern music since his arrival on the London scene with My Aim is True in 1977.
Enter Cruel Smile, a companion effort to When I Was Cruel, the first of his two Island releases in 2002. Cruel Smile is a rare breed of extended play separate in both design and delivery from WIWC, and, along with the Imposters (a more formal return of Steve Nieve, keyboards, and Pete Thomas, drums, both of former Attraction fame), deserving enough to earn a nomination for “Best Alternative Rock Album.”
Carefully selected highlights from his world tour add dimension to singles like “15 Petals,” adding layered horn loops over an almost-metal guitar that give the song a subversive edge over the studio track, making it sweet, live spitfire.
Most notable among the live tracks, though, is the classic Costello piss and vinegar of “Peroxide Side,” the inverted form of “Episode of Blonde” and a silver-tongued harangue on appearances. With lyrics bordering between metaphor and misanthropy, he spits: “Revolving like a jeweler’s figure on a music box/ the spangled curtain party that a night club scene unlocks/ pinned, fixed and fastened in a fallow spot/ arms thrown out to everyone, she’s givin’ all she’s got.” Without a stutter, this string of syllables heralds the kind of songwriting that, when combined with the energy of a live show, continues to evolve in essence and feeling. He echoes at fade out: “It’s another episode of blonde.”
Studio mysteries include variations of “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” with the arguably superior “No. 1,” his strong vibrato lending itself to being heard (and adored) as opposed to the heavy drum and bass version of the song. Always the impossible punster, he tweaks it again with “Honeyhouse,” a house remix so distinct in sound from it’s parent that it took more than a couple listens to discover it was the same song …
All tracks, however, are equally outstanding in their diversity. The opening and closing “Smile” (the only track not penned by Costello), could have been branded by Noel Coward and is itself a sideways reference to his recent music making history. It is nevertheless clever and even cheeky.
Carving a place for himself in post-punk rock and roll, Elvis necessarily commands respect for having been the crowned king of punk-pioneering almost 30 years ago. Cruel Smile is demonstrative of an artist who has run the gamut up and down the proverbial mixing board of creative expression, and bears witness to the staying power of unadulterated talent. It’s a thoughtful blend of masterful lyricism and, with all the youthful spontaneity of Live at El Mocambo, the freedom of live performance.
Lucky for EC zealots, his recent return to the “rowdy-rhythm” roots of This Year’s Model and Get Happy blazed the trail for the king of UK punk to reclaim his sovereign seat at the table of ROCK. Having made the decision to return to his debut sound with his old friends and bandmates, his sound is solid, mature, and distinctly his own.
His gig still has it going on. Grab your “Radio Radio” and “Pump it Up.”