Beyond their shared taste in eyewear and a compulsive mystification of sex easily mistaken for misogyny by shallow critics, Costello and Allen (both of whom are also absurdly prolific) have each earned the right to be their own benchmarks. And each has been cursed as a result.
Allen's movies are now routinely greeted with a rueful mix of admiration for his evolved filmmaking skills and longing for the comic energy of his early productions. Likewise, Costello's muse, showing the stretch marks of proud offspring, unsung bastards and stillborn flops, no longer gets the wolf whistles provoked by early albums such as Armed Forces. Ambition has sometimes led each artist to marginalize himself. But Allen's world -- once inclusive of broad sci-fi parody, period farces and up-to-the-minute satire -- has only shrunk as his technical precision has grown. Costello's high-art obsessions, though, have finally paid off with When I Was Cruel, a disc informed by the songwriter's expansive stylistic curiosity rather than dominated by it.
Allen's films falter most when they stray past the ninety-minute mark. In contrast, Costello, a gifted writer of short, stabbing pop songs, makes stunning epics. Costello's few studio numbers that spill past six minutes -- "I Want You," "It's Time," "My Dark Life" -- are among his best. Cruel's centerpiece, the mesmerizing seven-minute "When I Was Cruel No. 2," is even better. The tension between Costello's tightly acerbic narrative and the music's spaghetti-Western sprawl (an art-house "Accidents Will Happen" -- Costello with subtitles) gets no release from longtime Attractions foil Steve Nieve's sinuous piano and the trebly bite of Costello's sotto voce guitar.
The balance of Cruel is almost as rewarding. That Costello has never played or sung better is almost beside the point: He has never been louder. His voice, mixed high and freed of the formality that stunted recent projects, overpowers the tumble of trombones that otherwise dominates "15 Petals" and furiously transcends the otherwise too-repetitive "Alibi" without sacrificing control or grace.
Perhaps because Costello's catalog is yet again undergoing a sonic and cosmetic makeover, response to Cruel has been tied -- too tightly -- to those earlier recordings, particularly 1986's similarly commanding Blood and Chocolate. Most of these songs do, at first, sound almost too recognizably his. But Cruel doesn't recycle material; it revisits -- and vigorously modernizes -- vintage moods.