Album of the year: When I Was Cruel by Elvis Costello
Song for song, no other album of 2002 can stand head to head with Elvis Costello. Beyond anything else, Elvis has more outstanding songs than any other artist this year. Most particularly, he has more good MELODIES than any other album for the year. He has it down in terms of catchy core melodic hooks, and then actual melodic development of those hooks. Moreover, those melodies communicate more strong [not necessarily hysterical or loud] and subtle emotions than any other record made last year.
Take for example the sad humor of the title song "When I Was Cruel no. 2." The first low bleating notes of vibraphone(?) promise mocking satire that quickly turns into long, slow trip hopping phrases of sad regret. The lyrical details of a pathetic wedding party among the supposedly beautiful people gives more specificity to the mixed emotions of the melody; an older and wiser Elvis can't quite bring himself to ridicule these schmucks as once he would have. The lines of trebly lead guitar act as the ghost of the old Elvis of the 1970s.
"Alibi" stands out as a particularly kickass song, and representative of the predominant style of the whole album. By the tunefulness of it you might call it a ballad, but it has a strong midtempo groove -an undertow, and a biting emotional tone more associated with "rock." It has a good shot of that old fashioned Elvis cruelty that he eschews in the title track.
Damn, but Elvis knows how to make a RECORD out of his songs. Much like the Beatles, he has taken the care to really fully exploit the full potential of his basic songs. "Spooky Girlfriend" for example starts out as a pretty good song with a decent hook, but the arrangement really makes the song jump out. Listen to all the little things going on the mix; the trombone sounding thingy emerging near the end takes the whole song somewhere else. He's become really good at knowing how to add some unique colors to his songs without overloading the underlying composition with gimmicks. This contributes greatly to making each individual song unique, not sounding quite like anything else in his catalog even when he visits somewhat similar stylistic territory.
"Episode of Blonde" merits a special honorable mention. Elvis makes records with so many good songs that usually one or two get largely overlooked even by fans, especially near the end of the album. This one features a strong hook in the chorus, and a unique kind of film noir rap. It doesn't sound much like any other song I've ever heard, which is a significant compliment- there is some significantly innovative aspect to this. Yet there are just the faintest hints of "Watching the Detectives" to give old school Elvis fans some kind of handle.
To be critical, not every song on the record is a classic. I could do without about half a dozen of the fifteen songs. By my estimates, that leaves us with a kick-ass nine song album of about 42 minutes, with some listenable but less than essential bonuses.
An obvious sign that you're dealing with someone who doesn't get it comes when they speak hopefully of Elvis "getting back to his roots." This Year's Model is a great album. If you want to hear it, it is readily available on CD. I listen to it fairly often. Elvis already made that record, so there is no need for him to try to make another one like it. That is exactly NOT what Elvis has ever been about.
Most of even the best musicians of the rock era have a worthy artistic era of five to ten years tops. Yet twenty five years into his career, Elvis has put out if not his best album [tough competition, that] then certainly one worthy of his name. Paul Simon is the only other name that comes to mind as an equal in creative longevity. Like Simon, Elvis has had an exceptionally sharp self-understanding. They both have been well balanced between pushing the envelope for new styles and sounds while keeping at all times in touch with their original passions.
There are many choices for album of the year. Eminem is riding the zeitgeist, and he has several outstanding songs. I fear that ignorant Grammy voters will jump at the tuneless contrived heroics of Springsteen's fecal 9-11 exploitation album.
If, however, you value actual SONGS more than some kind of "social relevance" then Elvis is your man.
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