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Review of Brutal Youth
Mojo, 1994-__-__
- David Cavanagh


A ribbon of invective punching out the other side of the paper.

By David Cavanagh

(Picture caption: Nieve, Thomas (P), Costello, Thomas (B): rococo, whoomphing, fulminating and melodious respectively.)

Elvis Costello is once more a fine figure of a man and everything is as it should be: peering judgementally out over tortoise-shells on the front cover of the NME; fulminating anew and tabloid speed-reading; yoked up to the outfit he calls “the greatest group in the world”, The Attractions; dispensing with T-Bone Burnett and his hot-shot extramaritals; and dispersing water. There’s even a reappearance from Nick Lowe. Welcome to whenever this is.

A career that perpetually wrong-foots and baffles now offers us beat group spleen, a return to the chimes and snipes of tail-end-of-the-‘70s EC & The Attractions, and the cares and concerns of a young man’s London. And it’s jammed full of tunes. In the three years since Mighty Like A Rose, Costello has put his name to three very different albums. There was the soundtrack to Alan Bleasdale’s GBH, The Juliet Letters with The Brodsky Quartet and Wendy James’s solo album, Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears Babe, which, the story goes, he wrote in an hour-and-a-half. He’s almost disowned that one, said not a word about the GBH one, and crayoned a sarcastic rejoinder to one publications about its flaccid review of The Juliet Letters. It’s all been a bit strange.

Now, if Brutal Youth is the follow-up to anything, it’s a sound and style that flickered through Armed Forces, the less Philharmonic elements of Imperial Bedroom and that Wendy album, next to whom it stands as a literate, bilious twin. It’s a young man’s album, with a Londoner’s litany and a ribbon of invective punching right out the other side of the paper. It sounds tough as hell even when it sounds pretty, which means it sounds like classic Elvis Costello & The Attrractions.

Reel once more, then, beneath the terrific whoomph of Pete Thomas’s snare, heard to perfection on track two, Kinder Murder, and those heart-stopping rolls. Welcome back the melodious body-popping bass of Bruce Thomas. And over in the left speaker here’s Steve Nieve, with rococo piano embellishments and New Wave’s most famous organ.

Costello’s author-on-fire persona, meanwhile, fits in somewhere between the final, frantic, garaged-up minute of 13 Steps Lead Down and the explosion of “knickers in her handbag and the one false eyelash” on Kinder Murder. From white noise to white heat, from sneer to ear, it’s a trip to hear him expectorate couplets like “This is how your glorious country thinks of your life/Strip Jack naked with a Staaaanley knife” (20% Amnesia) or, on Sulky Girl, the line that goes “you’re talking like a duchess when you’re still a waitress”, so reminiscent of a cutting Natasha/Elsie demarcation 16 years ago.

However, Costello is still very inclined to go off-menu. Clown Strike is silly, jazzy and pretty awful. 20% Amnesia, all marimbas and trombone guitar sounds, is like Squeeze meets one of the instrumentals on Captain Beefheart’s Shiny Beast. You Tripped At Every Step is better, redolent of the white soul sound of Punch The Clock. Still Too Soon To Know and the closer, Favourite Hour, are emotional ballads, both with effortlessly great vocals. The vibrato no longer sounds like he’s forcing it.

For those trying to make perfect sense of it all, London’s Brilliant Parade – in title similar to a tune he wrote for Wendy James – is the great metropolis song, namechecking streets and locales, suggestive of speed and Speakeasies, a kind of comedown version of the word-game Mornington Crescent, with a lustrous melody out of his own top ten.

He’s done enough in the first 13 songs to have most fans greet it warmly as the prodigal album. For the last two, he simply stretches out and excels. The seething waltz All The Rage would have illuminated any Costello record, while Favourite Hour, which he sings alone but for a piano, ends the album on a stark owning-up time note. It is 1994, after all.

Many will opine that Elvis Costello has once again found the plot, but it’s not as simple as that. Let’s just say that a man who rarely puts a foot wrong has opted this time to put the boot in.


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