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Elvis Costello

When I Was Cruel (Island)

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Elvis Costello is such a chameleon, it's easy to forget how well he can rock. A dazzling wordsmith and increasingly flexible vocalist, he's spent much of the past five years on projects only distantly related to rock and roll, like work with the Mingus Big Band and soprano Annie Sofie Von Otter. His first rock CD in seven years proves he hasn't lost his touch, he's only deepened it.

Sparked by Attractions Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums, along with bassist Davey Faragher, Costello has turned in a typically mysterious collection of tunes. They span "45," a proud tribute to a quaint recording format Costello values; "15 Petals," a whirl of a tune with horns so shiny, you can envision Costello dancing with a flower in his teeth; "Tart," a ballad that caresses even as it cuts; and the loungy, rueful title track. There's power and joy here, along with the kind of startling imagery Costello specializes in. As usual, he's all over the stylistic map. But the diversity doesn't sound strained. Rather, it signals how effectively and dramatically Costello can present his musical depth, slaking our appetite for rock that's sophisticated, not pretentious.

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