Certain Songs #417: Elvis Costello – “When I Was Cruel No. 2”

Elvis Costello When I Was Cruel Album: When I Was Cruel
Year: 2002

In 2002, Elvis brought Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve back into the fold, added Cracker’s Davey Faragher on bass, and christened the result “The Imposters.”

It was a savvy move, allowing him to play with two of the guys who helped give him a lifetime pass without having the bear the full weight of the name “Elvis Costello & The Attractions.”

It also said: these guys are different, so don’t expect exactly the same, OK? And so while When I Was Cruel is the Elvis Costello album from the last two decades that sounds the most like vintage EC & The Attractions, it also features songs like “When I Was Cruel No. 2.,” with vintage Elvis lyrics like:

Two newspaper editors like playground sneaks
Running a book on which of them is going to last the week
One of them calls to me and he says, “I know you”
“You gave me this tattoo back in eighty-two”
“You were a spoilt child then with a record to plug”
“And I was a shaven-headed seaside thug”
“Things haven’t really changed that much”
“One of us is still getting paid too much”

With a slow, smoky beat, and a sample of Italian singer Mina intoning “un” every few seconds, “When I Was Cruel No. 2” is chock full of spaghetti western guitar, spooky keyboards and Abba lyrical cops.

It’s a total pastiche, and it probably shouldn’t work at all, but of course, this deep into his career, Elvis pretty knows how to make anything work, and I’m guessing that I’m totally underrating every single record he’s made this century.

“When I Was Cruel No. 2” performed live on Later With Jools Holland, 2002

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