Elvis Costello and his band, the Imposters, were nearing the end of a rousing, rocking set at a Manhattan club when the audience’s attention began to wander.
As he started his final encore, the chilling tale of a jilted sociopath, “I Want You,” loud conversations and laughter could be heard from the Bowery Ballroom bar.
Costello didn’t say anything, or even look annoyed. Instead, a malice-filled reading of the song did the work for him. The music quieted to a whisperlike level as Costello stepped away from the microphone to shout the line, “Did you call my name out as he held you down?” All talking ceased.
In a similar way, Costello is catching the ears of rock ‘n’ roll fans who may have lost patience with him after several years away from their world.
His new album, “When I Was Cruel,” is filled with bristling melodies, shards of distorted guitar and booming rhythms – along with the lyrical twists his fans are accustomed to. It has drawn some of his strongest reviews in years, and his best showing on the U.S. charts since 1980.
For followers who remember the dense, furious sound of Costello and his former band, the Attractions, it’s heaven.
Costello is suspicious of such sentiment. His motives are simple: after years in which he composed and sang orchestral pop with Burt Bacharach, collaborated with classical singer Anne Sofie von Otter and toured extensively accompanied only by keyboard player Steve Nieve, he wanted to pump up the volume.
Implicit in much of the comeback talk is criticism, or ignorance, of his other work.
“It is objectionable,” he said. “But it’s more to be pitied than hated.”
His first mainstream pop album in six years may have come sooner, but Costello wanted to wait until management turmoil at his record company, Island/Def Jam, sorted itself out. It gave him more time to write.
Costello consciously avoids the term “rock” when talking about his new disc. The word “symbolizes to me all the pompous, conceited music that I can’t stand,” he said.
He prefers “rowdy rhythm,” and the expression is quite apt. With co-producers Ciaran Cahill, Leo Pearson and Kieran Lynch, he’s crafted adventurous music informed by the drum ‘n’ bass movement of the past decade.
The title cut even prominently uses a sample – from an Italian pop singer named Mina – and repetition to ratchet up the musical tension.
The phrase “when I was cruel” is a whimsical nod to his reputation as an angry young man. He said it’s hard, as he gets older (Costello is 47), to stay angry at people you may have disdained when you’re able to see pieces of their humanity. Even vile politicians have stains on their tie or bad hairpieces.
Costello’s song, “45,” was written on his 45th birthday, and is a clever personal history lesson that draws on the end of World War II in 1945, a love affair with 45 rpm records and his own feelings on reaching that age.
The haunting ballad that ends the disc, “Radio Silence,” is about a man who barricades himself and hostages at a radio station.
“If you’ve ever been trapped in a cab where they’re playing talk radio stations you understand a person who confuses freedom of speech with the compulsion to speak,” he said.
The song, “15 Petals,” is a tribute to his wife, Cait, and uses surrealist images to conjure the thrill ride of romance. “Mussolini highway,” he sings. “There’s a frankincense tree. I picked some up there to carry with me.”
Don’t bother trying to figure out what that’s supposed to mean, or what half the songs on “When I Was Cruel” are about. Sometimes his lyrics are even a mystery to him, and he quickly grows impatient with questions about individual songs.
“People refer to some songs as obtuse – as if that’s a bad thing,” he said. “It’s like the criticism of being self-indulgent. Who are you supposed to indulge?”
Costello is clearly proud of the disc, and seemingly invigorated by his new band – even though the Imposters aren’t much different from his old band: Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas of the Attractions are back, while ex-Cracker bass player Davey Faragher replaces Bruce Thomas.
Costello had feuded with Bruce Thomas for several years, and said the bassist’s lack of effort and bad attitude ruined the Attractions for everyone. (Thomas, for his part, once wrote a thinly disguised novel about a rock band with a tyrannical leader).
“I’m very glad to be playing music that I like with a group of people that I enjoy spending time with,” Costello said.
They’ve already brought life to old and new songs, particularly the single, “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution).”
“I’m glad I made this record, I’m happy with the results of it (but) I’ll be able to beat it every night on stage,” he said.
The tour repertoire is about evenly divided between new music and his rocking records of the past, particularly the first two albums and 1987’s “Blood and Chocolate.”
“I don’t feel the responsibility to play all of the well-known songs. It’s better to mix things up,” he said. “One night we’ll play ‘Alison’ and one night I might not.”