This didn’t fit last week, what with my single-minded analysis of Wilco’s new album, but I need to mention it this week.
I am always, at least in some way, affected when musicians and artists I admired in my youth pass on, and even though it would be difficult to categorize Layne Staley in that way, his band Alice in Chains is forever tied to a certain period in my life. While I had been turned on to them by my long-lost buddy Steve Pelland (Hey, Pell, if you’re reading this…) in 1991, the band’s superb 1992 album Dirt was the soundtrack to my first two years of college. More specifically, it’s permanently tied in my mind to an overnight trip to Boston, an impromptu voyage involving four people I’d never met before. We drove two and a half hours down, spent roughly 20 minutes there, and drove two and a half hours back in time for class the following morning, and we blasted Dirt most of the way there and back.
Besides the nostalgia trip, though, it remains a fact that Dirt is a stupendous disc. Seriously. Go dig it out from that box in the garage labeled “grunge,” and check it out again. Almost every song is in an odd time signature, it’s filled with inventive and foreboding melodies, and it features those super-cool harmonies (!) between Staley and Jerry Cantrell. It’s also a tough listen, laden as it is with tales of addiction and pain. Staley’s death from a heroin overdose last month only makes it more painful. Sure, Alice in Chains made other good albums, but they never surpassed Dirt, and if the entire Seattle grunge movement had been thrust upon us only to unleash that one album, it would have been worth it.
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The first song on Elvis Costello’s new album, When I Was Cruel, is called “45,” and in a particularly Costello lyrical twist, the title works three ways, referring to a year, an age and a recording format. It’s almost his autobiography, tracing a music lover through boyhood to middle age, and all by itself, it raises just about every one of the album’s shortcomings.
The first is that, unlike Costello’s beloved 45 RPM records (and yes, I do remember them), the compact disc can hold more than an hour of music. This alone has contributed more to the surplus of uneven-at-best albums coming out these days. Costello came up during a time when vinyl was still the dominant format, and a single album usually ran between 30 and 40 minutes. This holds true for Costello’s first batch of angry, loud records, to which everything he’s done since has been compared.
Of course, the vinyl format didn’t really allow for too much filler, especially for a prolific and consistent songwriter like Costello. This Year’s Model, a picture-perfect album, is barely done kicking your ass and slapping your face before it’s over. Double albums, which Costello has never produced, were often criticized for being bloated and saddled with inferior tracks written to fill space. Fast forward 20 years, and now consider this: Led Zeppelin’s double album Physical Graffiti, which could definitely use a bit of a trim, would only need to cut three minutes to fit on one CD.
That’s the music biz now – an average album is more than an hour long, and you have to hit 90 minutes or so to qualify for double album status. That’s a lot of music, and it’s no wonder that a larger percentage of it is sub-par. Take any 65-minute album you own and cut your least favorite tracks off of it, and see if you don’t come up with a tight, solid 30-to-40-minute disc that surpasses the original in all but length.
Or, to bring this ramble back to the point, take Elvis Costello’s When I Was Cruel and start chopping. There is a really good 40-minute album hiding in this hour-and-change, and finding it is surprisingly easy, considering how good this guy’s songs usually are. The bloat even extends to certain songs. The title track weighs in at more than seven minutes, and its monotonous beat gets old after three or four. “Alibi” would be a classic, if it weren’t so long and repetitive that you’ll think you accidentally hit the repeat button around minute four.
Which is a shame, because when Costello’s on, he’s amazing. The aforementioned “45” is a perfect example of why other songwriters adore this guy. The gloriously mean “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” could have fit well on 1995’s Brutal Youth, his last original rock record. Most impressively, the Dylan-esque “Episode of Blonde” includes all the venom and spite you’d expect with a title like that. It’s a scattershot rail against stupidity of all kinds, with Costello spitting out classic lines like these: “She had the attention span of warm cellophane,” “She was a cute little ruin that he pulled out of the rubble, now they are both living in a soft soap bubble,” and my favorite, “So an artist drags a toothbrush across the first thing he sees, and names the painting ‘Christ’s Last Exit into Purgatory.'”
Nothing wrong with all that, but then there is the rest of the album, which ranges from merely good to achingly average, and the problem appears to be at least partially psychological. It’s been seven years since Costello has rocked out, and he’s pushing 50. He’s spent the intervening years making lovely chamber pop with the likes of Burt Bacharach, not exactly the most graceless of public agings. There’s a lot riding on this album for him, and it often feels like he’s working overtime to prove he hasn’t turned into Mick Jagger. Unfortunately, that often translates into cacophony for its own sake, with clanging drums, wailing guitars and not much melody.
And then there’s Costello’s voice, always a take it or leave it proposition, and never more so than here. He’s written several songs here that he can’t sing, and he gamely tries anyway, with mixed results. “Tart,” for example, is a lovely ballad, one of the best songs on the album, until the band kicks in halfway through and Costello reaches unsuccessfully for notes he hasn’t been able to hit in many years. He screams his way through punk rave-up “Dissolve,” which must have been first take, and he strains audibly on “15 Petals.” While it’s great to hear Costello refuse to lay down and be Elton John, it’s sometimes a bit of a chore to sit through.
And in the end, that’s what “45” is about, and that’s the paradox it raises. “It creeps up on you without a warning,” he sings of his age, and there’s a huge gap between wanting to recapture your youth and being physically able to. Critics are knocking themselves out to praise this disc, and they’re probably reacting more to Costello’s ambition than the music. In its best moments, When I Was Cruel ably displays that he can still write a biting rock song. Overall, however, it’s a pale shadow of the man’s glory days, a merely decent album that will only remind you of when he was great.
See you in line Tuesday morning.