Following the release of My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello received the print version of a coming out party with the help of writer Nick Kent in the August 27, 1977 edition of New Musical Express. In the feature, Costello said the following:
“The only two things that matter to me, the only motivation points for me writing all these songs are revenge and guilt. Those are the only emotions I know about, that I know I can feel. Love? I dunno what it means, really, and it doesn’t exist in my songs.”
The “revenge and guilt” line was an opening for Costello, providing the necessary context and fodder for music journalists as they contemplated My Aim Is True. “Revenge and guilt” impressions are especially pronounced within My Aim Is True’s “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”:
Opening with the now classic lines “Oh I used to be disgusted / And now I try to be amused,” the song details the mixture of emotions that happens when one is grappling with a break-up. The song is dripping with “revenge and guilt” and helped place Costello as a sympathetic and adjacent figure to the U.K. punk movement of the late 1970s. As the years went on and his musical expression deepened and expanded, Costello pushed against the restrictions that he had placed on himself as an angry young man. Costello wrote in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink:
“Mothers used to warn the scowling child, ‘If the wind changes, you’ll get stuck that way.’ I’ve seen a lot of people get trapped in their masks like that. It would have been so easy to remain in a permanent sneer, perhaps even better for business, but my mind and my heart were elsewhere.”
In an interview with the London Times in 2002, Costello reflected on this shift as a songwriter:
“You’re more inclined to be tolerant as you get older. You see the human frailties. And you have to keep reminding yourself that, yes, they are as wretched as your judgmental younger self thought they were. When you’re young, you can demonize people easily. I look at some of the brutality of the language in some of the early songs — probably overdoing it just to make a point, and to make a name for myself.”
Taking this long view on his own work informed Costello’s 2002 album When I Was Cruel and especially the centerpiece song on the album, “When I Was Cruel No. 2”:
Costello adopts a new musical approach for him within “When I Was Cruel No. 2” as it contains a sample of “Un Bacio È Troppo Poco,” a 1965 song written by Antonio Amurri and Bruno Canfora and performed by Mina:
Mina’s original song has the feel of a torch song as she sings alluringly:
One kiss is not enough
To let me know whether I love you.
One kiss is not enough
To truly know
Whether I like you, whether I like you
Or if conversely, it’s just sympathy
On both your and my part.
Mina’s song is a beautiful, brooding work of longing, questioning, and the hope that the “one kiss” is the beginning of a new love affair.
“When I Was Cruel No. 2” begins with strange, distorted notes from a guitar or a keyboard before the loop begins that Costello has created from the beginning of Mina’s recording. The loop contains the insistent drums from “Un Bacio È Troppo Poco,” the song’s strings that sound a mysterious chord, and only a snippet of Mina’s vocals, the first word she sings “un” or “one.” It’s a captivating sound as constructed by Costello through sampling technology, a musical foundation from which he can present his own lyrical framework. The sound of “When I Was Cruel No. 2” shares a sensibility with the 1990s trip-hop movement of the U.K., especially the band Portishead. “Sour Times” is Portishead’s most seminal song off of their 1994 release Dummy:
Within “Sour Times,” Portishead incorporates a sample from Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin’s “Danube Incident” from the 1967 album, More Mission: Impossible. Portishead assembles a new sound based on that sample, portending a threat of some kind, perhaps the end of the millennium and the start of the 21st century. Costello answers their warning from the other side of the millennial divide with the sound of “When I Was Cruel No. 2” which suggests: “The world didn’t end, but the peril you were feeling didn’t go anywhere; it’s still here.”
In a similar blending process to Portishead’s work, Costello integrates musical instrumentation played by human beings with the Mina sample to create something new. Former Attraction running mate Steve Nieve returns to Costello’s fold by playing piano; Bill Ware contributes an ominous vibraphone sound; and Costello handles the rest. The most notable sound in addition to the Mina sample is the noir/spaghetti western guitar that weaves in and out of the verses sung by Costello. This guitar figure is similar to other Costello guitar work in previous songs “Watching the Detectives” and “My Dark Life,” both of which were covered by Recliner Notes here and here. This noir-ish musical expression acts as a connective tissue within Costello’s work, always accompanying an analogous set of lyrics imbued with foreboding and even menacing overtones.
When the album was released, Costello said of “When I Was Cruel No. 2”:
“The song is about when you see dreadful people close up, people of power and influence, and you see that they’re not really as terrifying as you led yourself to believe. I’ve seen some politicians up close, and when you see how seedy they are, how their moral authority is an illusion, it robs them of that sense of dread that you maybe had about them. They may be billionaires, but they have their own little tragedies going on the same way as poor people do.”
Costello establishes the scene within the song in the first verse:
I exit through the spotlight glare
I stepped out into thin air
Into a perfume so rarefied.
As a successful performer, Costello has spent plenty of time in the “spotlight glare” of the music industry and Hollywood, but in this song, he is describing a setting that, despite his own success, he is not usually invited into. It is filled with a different class of people who drip with money and power. It’s “thin air” holding “a perfume so rarefied.” Even the smells are richer here. Costello then sings, “Here comes the bride” so we know that the song’s locale is a wedding, and the narrator overhears remarks from others in attendance:
Not quite aside, they snide, “She’s number four”
“There’s number three just by the door”
Those in the know, don’t even flatter her, they go one better
“She was selling speedboats in a tradeshow when he met her.”
It’s nasty comment after nasty comment in an attempt to one-up each other. Among the upper class set, the bitchiness can’t be surpassed. The song continues:
Look at her now
She’s starting to yawn
She looks like she was born to it.
None of these lines are in quotation marks, so they are the narrator’s own thoughts. Though he is making his own judgments on the bride, he’s not as catty as the attendees, but still contemptuous. These are certainly harsh words, and Costello follows them with the song’s refrain:
But it was so much easier
When I was cruel.
With these words, Costello removes the sense that there is a narrator and instead presents the song from his own point of view, recalling his younger days of being driven by “revenge and guilt.” He admits to his cruel nature during that time. So when he says that sharing brutal convictions such as “She looks like she was born to it” was “easier” during his “revenge and guilt” phase, is it that the judgements came quicker and that he isn’t quite as fast as when he was younger? Or, is he admitting that sharing such severe assessments actually causes a twinge in his conscience as an older man? Despite any regrets he may have, Costello is still singing a song filled with acidic commentary and we are still listening to it. This is the same artist who can’t quite forget his days of “revenge and guilt.”
In the next verse, Costello sings:
The captains of industry just lie there where they fall
In eau-de-nil and pale carnation creation.
The phrase “captains of industry” recalls Costello’s sharp words for those taking advantage of artists in his earlier song “All This Useless Beauty.” In this scene, he sees these billionaires getting supremely drunk, uselessly lying in heaps while wearing only the best apparel. Such a waste of finery, Costello hints. Speaking of having too much to drink, he tells us about the newly married couple:
She straightens the tipsy head-dress of her spouse
While her’s recalls a honey house
There’ll be no sorrows left to drown
Early in the morning in your evening gown
But it was so much easier
When I was cruel.
Costello is not predicting a happy future for this couple especially as their marriage is starting off this way: “There’ll be no sorrows left to drown” for the bride as she’s still in her “evening gown” the next morning. Costello repeats the refrain. His words don’t hold regret, but perhaps a twinge of wistfulness that he’s seeing this marital dynamic play out once again. Costello sings the next verse:
The entrance hall was arranged with hostesses and ushers
Who turned out to be the younger wives nursing schoolgirl crushes
Parting the waves of those few feint friends
Fingers once offered are now too heavy to extend
The ghostly first wife glides up stage-whispering to raucous talkers
Spilling family secrets out to flunkeys and castrato walkers.
In his description of passed out power brokers, their even-more-powerful wives, and assorted hangers-ons, Costello invokes the spirit of Bob Dylan, especially Dylan’s devastating portrait of the scenester in “Like A Rolling Stone”:
Dylan’s lines, “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat / Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat,” would fit in perfectly with Costello’s detailing of the peculiarities and eccentricities of the very rich within “When I Was Cruel No. 2.” Costello’s delivery of the lyrics to his song recall Dylan as well. Costello finishes the verse by singing:
See that girl
Watch that scene
Digging the “Dancing Queen.”
Costello discards the “when I was cruel” refrain for the ending of this verse to make sure that we know that even the all-powerful when gathered for a wedding also enjoy ABBA:
This not a crack being made by Costello as he has long professed his love of ABBA in his liner notes, interviews, and his memoir. He may be admitting here that “digging the ‘Dancing Queen’” is the one thing that he is able to understand and respect throughout the entire wedding.
After an extended instrumental break in which the noir guitar and the lounge piano are joined by a ghost-like violin in the background, Costello sings the last verse:
Two newspaper editors like playground sneaks
Running the 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 ’82”
“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.”
The specificity of the dialogue that Costello shares in these lines leads to an assumption that Costello actually had these words half-drunkenly yelled at him backstage at a private performance and Costello immediately wrote them down in a notebook. It’s a portrayal of inebriated bravado; two men who are presuming rapport yelling “You were a spoilt child then with a record to plug” with blustery audacity. When Costello has to repeat the line “One of us is still getting paid too much” that one of these editors said to him, he delivers it with as much bile-laden disgust as any line-reading in his career. Which is certainly saying a lot. He finishes the verse by singing:
There are some things I can’t report
The memory of his last retort
But it was so much easier
When I was cruel.
Costello’s loathing of this editor is indisputable. By singing, “There are some things I can’t report” Costello demonstrates that he has the ability to show some restraint despite his repulsion towards this man. Once upon a time, he would have written an entire song about this exchange, back “when I was cruel.” Now, Costello asks for recognition for his growth and self-control. Costello yelps one time before the song fades out as the guitar, piano, and violin play off one another with Mina’s insistent “un” repeating over and over.
It should be noted that the song’s title is “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” which implies that there is a previous version of the song. The public heard it when Costello released Cruel Smile six months after When I Was Cruel. Cruel Smiles serves as a shadow version of the previous album, including B-sides and live performances with “When I Was Cruel No. 1” serving as the highlight:
“No. 1” features a full band; no sample or sign of Mina. In fact, it’s an entirely different song from “No 2.” except for the title tag line “when I was cruel.” In an interview with GQ in 2009, Costello said the following:
“The key song when it comes to… my own sensibilities… is not ‘My Dark Life’. It’s ‘When I Was Cruel No. 1.’”
This statement by Costello confirms that “No. 1” is a very personal song for him. Seemingly intimate details are revealed in the song including:
So don’t pretend you’re innocent
Do I look like a fool?
I guess you have forgotten
When I was cruel
So don’t protest your innocence
The truth is hard to judge
Perhaps you have forgotten when
I held a grudge.
The song ends with Costello repeating, “And you liked me too / When I was cruel / Oh you know you did.” The key part of the lyrics is the past tense, the implication that the woman who the song is directed at no longer likes him. “When I Was Cruel No. 1” was released in 2002, the same year that Costello divorced Cait O’Riordan, who had been his wife since 1986. Even without Costello’s indication about the personal nature of the song in GQ, it’s apparent how personal “No. 1” is for him.
At some point, Costello considered what would become the song “When I Was Cruel No. 1” and considered it too much of a disclosure, either for his audience, O’Riordan, or even himself. With that understanding, he took the key phrase — “when I was cruel” — and utilized that basic conceit to write an entirely new song. Comparing “No. 1” with “No. 2”, the transformation in perspective is evident. Instead of commenting on his own marriage, he decides to expound on someone else’s using the same razor-sharp eye for detail in both. It’s a shift from the internal to the external. He then buries “No. 1” and relegates it to a limited release collection of B-sides and alternate takes.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Considering both “No. 1” and “No. 2” at the same time reveals that Costello is comfortable holding both fire and ice. He has “tasted of desire” and has the capacity to “know enough of hate.” Both songs demonstrate Costello’s songwriting mastery. He contemplates his younger motivational mode of “revenge and guilt” as an older man, resulting in two distinct artistic expressions, one speaking in fire and the other encased in ice.