Elvis Costello has always been a guy who’s been able to maintain some mystery about his private life. As a result, the manner in which his fans perceive him is mainly derived from the persona he creates in his songs.
His acknowledgment and subverting of this perception of him is what gives “When I Was Cruel No. 2” its particular potency. The song invites listeners to envision the real-life Costello living within the bounds of its fictional world. Once they’ve made that leap, the songwriter toys with their expectations and makes them rethink any assumptions they’ve made about his personality based on the nature of his work.
Coming on an album (2002’s When I Was Cruel) that was billed as a return to his rock roots after years of forays into other genres, “When I Was Cruel No. 2” is actually anything but rock. It’s reminiscent of the ambient music in some 60’s art-house film, the strange sampled female voice adding a hint of exoticism. Elvis’ guitar ambles about the scene like a panther getting ready to pounce (recalling the guitar part in “Watching The Detectives,”) but the music never uncoils to release the tension, settling instead for a trance-like rhythm that sounds like a tango for the undead.
The song portrays Costello as the entertainment for a society wedding, and from that vantage point he casts his unblinking gaze on all of the humanity before him. It’s not somewhere you would expect him to be: One of the world’s finest musicians performing for drunken magnates and their vapid wives. (I don’t know if Elvis is one of the many musicians who plays corporate gigs for big bucks, but, if he ever did, he must have been taking notes for this song.) From the boat show model-turned-fourth wife to the bitter exes to the gossiping hangers-on, there isn’t one of these tortured souls that escapes the notice of the bandleader.
Up until the final verse, it’s still possible to imagine that the narrator is just a wedding-band musician, since he makes no references to himself. That’s when a combative newspaper editor recognizes him from way back in “’82.” His reminiscences with the singer reveal how their respective fortunes have been transformed: “‘You were a spoiled 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.'”
The chorus is where Costello upends our expectations. As the narrator surveys this scene full of joyless dancers and tarnished wealth, you might expect Elvis, given his past excoriations of such subject matter, to either revel in their misery or dismiss them altogether. Instead, he seems more dejected then anything else as he mewls out the refrain, “But it was so much easier/When I was cruel.”
It’s a fascinating line, suggesting that a younger version of Elvis could have blown through that scene and endured it all only by inflicting some damage himself. By contrast, the older version regards it all with weary heartbreak, perhaps because he can identify a bit too closely with all those sad eyes looking up at him on the bandstand.
“When I Was Cruel No. 2” can be enjoyed simply based on its unique music and Costello’s impressive lyrical feats. It gets even better though when you consider those features in conjunction with an appreciation of the song’s fascinating portrait of the artist as a man older, wiser, and no longer able to sneer away the pain.
(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)
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