Review of Brutal Youth
New Musical Express, 1994-03-05
- David Quantick



Brutal Youth (WEA/All formats)

IT BEGINS with a piano flourish, crashes like the world falling over into a riff riot of guitars and drums, a man starts shouting at you in the voice of Buddy Holly trapped in the larynx of a crow and using phrases like "cartoon threat" and "Das Kapital" in anger, and then it all careens on in a similar fashion for an hour or so through 15 mad, enraged, comical and loud songs, until it expires in a thoughtful heap of piano again.
     Good Lord! This must be an Elvis Costello And The Attractions album! And it is; 'Brutal Youth' once more sees the King of Glasses and Rage going through his traditional seven-year cycle of kicking aside all thoughts of musical eclecticism, grace and session musicianliness in favour of working with Pop's Roughest Men on a new kind of terror weapon. The results, unsurprisingly, are striking in the extreme.
     There's the usual name-that-hookarama of references, this time taken largely from the Costello/Attractions back catalogue - a keyboard snatch from 'Radio Radio' here, a distorted assault on the 'Pump It Up' riff there - there's the welcome assault on human unkindness, soldiers get it in the neck, sentences like "the failed Don Juan in the big bow-tie is very sorry that he spoke" (it's like Bob Dylan happened) abound and all the songs achieve the minor miracle of sounding like they're all two minutes long even though they're not. Brutal? Yes indeed.
     Youth? Not, naturally. Elvis Costello trashed New Wave as an idea hundreds of years before Elastica went skinny tie-shopping, and he can do that thumping syncopation in your sleep, never mind his own. Unlike his contemporaries and anyone else who's been called a singer-songwriter, Costello isn't averse to coming back to the amphetamined adolescent rock of his past; but unlike the callow young artistes of now, he brings to that noise something very close to maturity and wisdom.
     Angry and jealous he may still be, but Elvis is a grown-up, and a very big one, too. Songs like the beautiful and paced 'Still Too Soon To Know' and the panoramic 'London's Brilliant Parade' (a song which manages to both refer to Costello's rock past and express sympathy for the lions and tigers in Regent's Park Zoo) are no teenage whine but the work of the adult entertainer. Elvis is a man who's lived and loved, ladies and gentlemen, and what's more, he's not afraid to say "knickers". (He says "knickers" in two songs, trainspotters will be pleased to know.) Even after six or so playings, 'Brutal Youth' still crashes by like a carnival procession with no brakes. 'Kinder Murder', '20% Amnesia', '13 Steps Lead Down' - these songs come at you flailing like bare-knuckle fighters blinded by their own blood. There are, admittedly, quieter moments - the whimsical 'This Is Hell', the final track 'Favourite Hour' - but these are the tiniest breaks in this furious storm of garage mad-bloke rock.
     And thank God, say I. A significant thing about 'Brutal Youth' is that, while like its predecessors it clocks in at the traditional 15-songs-in-one-hour Costello time, it sounds about ten minutes long. You come into 'Brutal Youth' young and full of plans: a few seconds seem to pass, it ends, and you find that your children have grown up and are all flying to Mars in rockets. The same could not be said of 'Spike', 'Mighty Like A Rose' and 'The Juliet Letters'; the three albums before 'Brutal Youth' were increasingly, ah, complex things; and while 'The Juliet Letters' is surely excellent and 'Spike' end even 'Mighty Like A Rose' contain moments of brilliance and beauty, over the past five years, we must as happy pop listeners concede that listening to these albums sometimes creates the feeling of a slow march through molasses.
     'Brutal Youth' is a throat-clearing, snot-spitting spring clean that benefits us as well as the Elv. (And there are signs that things might have been otherwise; observe the extra tracks on the 'Sulky Girl' single, one a percussive instrumental called 'Idiophone' - at one point the projected title of this or a similar album - and 'A Drunken Man's Praise Of Sobriety', an excessively Tom Waitsian reading of a Yeats poem. We wuz spared, readers, we wuz spared.)
     But enough of that; 47 albums down the line, reunited (doubtless briefly) with a band he hasn't worked with since 1964, best mates with everyone who's ever won a Brit award or given their child a novelty Christian name, Elvis Costello has made an album that sounds like a debut with all the fire and fury that entails - and he has brought to it a wise man's brain and wit. Yes, readers - there is a place for the informed craftsman-like singing songwriter in our lives; and with 'Brutal Youth', Elvis Costello has kicked down your door and murdered your dog to make that place. (9)

David Quantick