It's been a long stretch since the last recording Elvis Costello made with his erstwhile Attractions, a pair that once went together like coffee and cigarettes and tended to have the same jittery, jangled-nerve effect on a series of late '70s albums that were masterpieces of lovingly, maliciously twisted pop.
The retro-savvy Rykodisc label continues to reissue those classics (the 1981 Trust is due in April), helping to create a welcome climate for Costello's new Brutal Youth. At last, many fans will cry, the singer reunites with his storm-tossed musical mates in mayhem, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Bruce Thomas. No more sessions with string quartets! No more bands composed of Los Angeles studio wizards! Just the bare essentials.
These 15 new songs echo the glory years in tone — only one band sounds like the Attractions — but stubbornly resist boiling down; Costello's elaborate psychodramas, kiss-offs and cruel history lessons yield their meanings in spit-out fragments and lyrical asides. If there's nothing as flat-out brilliant or corrosive as the best of the 1987 album Blood & Chocolate (Costello's last with the Attractions), the songs on Brutal Youth are far more consistent than any of Costello's albums since. But you'll have to come to them over time.
The album's first single, "13 Steps Lead Down," starts in familiar territory, a sketch of dominance and submission that veers from tidy melodic choruses to surging rave-up, as Costello snarls "Just stop playing this ugly drug music." Elsewhere, he takes a disparaging tour of clubland on lullabylike "This Is Hell" (where he's greeted by "The irritating jingle of the belly-dancing Turkish girls / The eerie glare of ultraviolet perfect dental work"); dabbles in bittersweet soul (a la Alex Chilton) on "Clown Strike," echoes a doo-wop classic on "Still Too Soon to Know" and returns to his old caustic self on "20% Amnesia," with its breathless, screeching lyrics ("Were you passed out on the sofa / While justice was bartered by a drunken oaf?").
Even without Maggie Thatcher to kick around any more, Costello remains a man on intimate terms with his bile ducts. But he's more tender and reflective, engaged in a "Kinder Murder." On the anti-romantic "Just About Glad," he glances back at an almost-relationship. "I'm just about glad I knew you once and it was more than a passing acquaintance / I'm just about glad that it was a memory that didn't need constant maintenance."
Though "passion still flutters and flickers, it never got into our knickers." Lucky for Costello fans, the same can't be said of his on-again, off-again fling with the Attractions.