Given the flurry of activity from Elvis Costello at the turn of the century -- concerts, guest appearances, reissues, a movie role that was barely seen outside of off-hours on BET -- it's hard to believe that he spent four years without releasing an album of new compositions...and if you don't count the Bacharach collaboration, it's been a full six years since his last album. Either way, it was the longest stretch of time between albums in Costello's career, capping off a decade of records where he seemed to determine to flaunt his versatility, range, and ambition, which may be the reason why the focused, stripped-down artiness and resurgent acerbic wit sounds particularly fresh on When I Was Cruel. As such, it's easy to be tempted to call the record a return to form, but it's not an accurate assessment, not least because it's not as strong as Painted From Memory. It is accurate to call it the most Costello Costello record since probably Blood & Chocolate -- one that maintains a consistent tone, bristles with nasty humor, and is filled with carefully written lyrics (some could call them labored) and knowing, clever musicality. Since it's a post-Froom, post-Ribot production, it's murky and hazy, with muffled drums, shoebox guitars, obscured loops, and angled arrangements all signifying that while this is his first pop album in years, it's still a serious experience (but fortunately much livelier than the Froom productions, and not nearly as mannered or affected). In other words, it's exactly what it was supposed to be and it's successful on those terms, but that shouldn't be mistaken as a creative rebirth along the lines of, say, Love & Theft, or a record that will play outside of the cult, since the sound and approach is pretty insular. Given all the care that was put in the production, the variety of the music, and the craft of the lyrics, it's no surprise that there are memorable moments -- whether it's the horns on "Episode of Blonde" or the dynamite guitar on "Tear off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," -- but they're moments in songs, not songs themselves. Each song is so tightly wound, only those who automatically listen to new Costello records obsessively upon release will unravel their mysteries. Those listeners will find plenty to obsess over and will be satisfied, since, outside of the Bacharach album, it's his best in a long time. But in order to know that, you will have to have diligently listened to everything from Spike on -- and if you got off the bus around then, it's harder than ever to get back on.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine