For an awful lot of us in the late '70s, there was only one Elvis that mattered, and his last name wasn't Presley.
From the first notes of My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello struck a chord with rock fans who saw his work as a much-needed tonic against the banal excess of the era's mainstream rockers. Much of that had to do with his songs, which were at once bitingly funny (who could resist lines like "They call her Natasha / But she looks like Elsie"?) and gloriously tuneful.
But an equal amount of our enthusiasm was directed toward Costello's backing band, the Attractions. It wasn't just that this trio — drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Bruce Thomas — could handle anything from the Spectorian flourishes of Armed Forces to the neo-soul sound of Get Happy!!!; at their best, they played with enough razor-edged intensity to energize the most venomous of Costello's verses.
So when word got out that Brutal Youth (Reprise 45535, arriving in stores today) would reunite Costello with the Attractions, quite a few fans found themselves dreaming aquiver in anticipation. Could the old fire be rekindled anew?
Lord knows, Costello could use the help. After breaking with the Attractions in 1985, his output has been uniformly disappointing — from the rootsy overreach of King of America to the laughable pretense of his string quartet "song cycle," The Juliet Letters. It was as if the angry young man who thrilled us back then had suddenly been replaced by a bilious old crank who thought himself too clever for rock and roll.
Fortunately, that side of Costello is pretty much in abeyance on Brutal Youth. In fact, there are moments on the album — "13 Steps Lead Down," say, or "You Tripped at Every Step" — where you could almost close your eyes and imagine that it's 1978 again.
Provided, that is, you don't pay too much attention to what he's singing.
Musically, Brutal Youth is very much a return to form. Even though bassist Bruce Thomas plays bass on only a third of the album (Nick Lowe, who produced most of Costello's recordings with the Attractions, fills that role elsewhere), the Attractions' sound is almost exactly as remembered, from the chiming piano and explosive drum fills of "Pony Street" (vintage Armed Forces) to the wheezy harmonium and swaggering shuffle of "Clown Strike" (classic Trust).
Some songs, like "This Is Hell" or "You Tripped at Every Step," manage to improve on the old sound, thanks to vocal arrangements that make Elvis and the Attractions sound even sharper than they did originally. But the best moments come during songs like the raucous "20% Amnesia," where you'd swear you were hearing some long-lost outtake from This Year's Model. Trouble is, that illusion evaporates as soon as your attention shifts from the melodic surface to the lyrical underside of these songs. That's when it becomes clear that the Costello who wrote these numbers is the same verbose crank responsible for Blood & Chocolate and Spike.
Instead of wicked wordplay and cutting sarcasm, what he serves are lame puns ("You're flogging a dead horse / All the way down Pony Street," from "Pony Street") and limp put-downs ("'My Favorite Things' is playing again and again / But it's by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane," from "This Is Hell"). And as far as deeper meanings go, Costello struggles to get beyond "what fools these mortals be" — though he never phrases it so cleverly as that.
Fortunately, his atrocious-as-ever diction makes it possible to miss much of that. In fact, it's a fair bet that most of the people who've heard "13 Steps Lead Down" on the radio assume that he's actually singing "13 Sexy Girls." (It certainly makes as much sense that way.)
Still, any fan hoping for a return to the glory days will likely find Brutal Youth a brutal disappointment. These guys may have been shooting for the magic they used to make, but it looks like their aim isn't as true as it used to be.