Review of Brutal Youth
Vox, 1994-03-01
- Patrick Humphries



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Brutal Youth
(Warner Bros 936245535-2)

Released like some malevolent jack-in-the-box, Brutal Youth finds Elvis Costello reunited with The Attractions and firing on all cylinders. If anyone was entitled to coast on former glories, it would be Elvis Costello, but aside from some spasmodic confusion, he has rarely put a foot wrong since his corrosive debut nearly 20 (gasp) years ago.

Whether it is the strategic reunification with his long-standing band, domestic bliss, encroaching middle age, the opportunity of self-appraisal courtesy of the essential 2 Years box or inspiration gleaned from his role as muse to Wendy James, Brutal Youth is the album Costello needed to make.

The confidence comes flooding back with an opening salvo ('Pony Street', 'Kinder Murder', '13 Steps Lead Down') that recalls the exhilarating impact of This Year's Model and Armed Forces. Brutal Youth has 15 streaming tracks, forcible reminders of just why Costello's presence on the insubstantial and ephemeral pop scene of the '90s is so welcome.

Costello was born with a pop sensibility, which was then honed by years of disinterest and reinforced by his unfashionable passion for C&W, R&B, ballad, soul and folk. Brutal Youth reflects these passions with a venom he hasn't aired on record since Blood And Chocolate—you forget just how nasty he can sound. With the wedge of sound that is The Attractions, Brutal Youth will bring all the Elvis fans back into the fold after Mighty Like A Rose and The Juliet Letters.

The album opens with Steve Nieve's solo piano, reminiscent of his spritely 'Oliver's Army' sound. '13 Steps...' is Costello refining his '60s pop, maybe helped by working hand-in-glove with Paul McCartney. 'This Is Hell' is full of the kind of lurid imagery that Costello fans relish—a world of belly dancers, hula-hoops and a soundtrack by Julie Andrews, not John Coltrane. 'My Science Fiction Twin' is the sound of someone entering a quirky Twilight Zone. 'Still Too Soon To Know' is a short stab about a relationship in a state of either "ignorance or bliss".

This album has all the knowing pop references, but is infused with a humanity that has been missing on recent works. If there are faults, it is a sense of restraint—Blood And Chocolate (the last full Costello and Attractions collaboration) had a sense of being right on the edge, whereas this has, perhaps, taken a step back from it. Brutal Youth has Costello pulling some punches, and Mitchell Froom's production does not have the force of Nick Lowe's. Still, Brutal Youth is the sound of Elvis Costello re-entering the '90s. A man out of time, and back on track. ~ 8

Patrick Humphries

Brutal Youth is released on March 8