Ah, youth. The couple cling to each other as they slip through the halo of the streetlamp at a remote corner of London's Hyde Park, probably first-date lovers on an endless summer stroll. As they draw closer, the evening mist parts and the pair reveal themselves to be Elvis Costello and spouse Cait O'Riordan, taking the night air. London's like that metropolis and village, vast haunt and intimate haven, a ceremonial city with the twilight ability to surprise. Some blithe spirit should write a song about it — and one just has.
The unexpectedly lovely "London's Brilliant Parade" appears on a forthcoming Costello album with the unlikely title of Brutal Youth (Warner Bros., due March 8), and it's a truly exultant ode to life's brief interludes of well-being: "Just look at me / I'm having the time of my life / Or something quite like it / When I'm walking out and about / In London's brilliant parade."
"I had just started the second period of recording for the new record when we met on the street that night," Costello recalls four months later with a bashful chuckle. "That song is probably as close as I'll ever get to writing a sentimental song about the town I was born in [on Aug. 25, 1954], even though I've never really regarded it as my hometown. But some places have a special personal significance for me." The lyrics mention precincts of Regents Park, Camden Town, and the Hammersmith Palais, where father Ross MacManus sang from 1955-69 with the Joe Loss Dance Orchestra. "If that's indulgent, then I don't really care. That's one of the extremities of this record."
Believe it or not, Costello has just turned 18 as a recording artist, and he's obviously enjoying the last reckless years of his creative adolescence. Fans who fell for the scrawny singer/songwriter in 1977 because he could spout raw, flip-the-bird fury and fond laments will find the "Bridge" track to be the "Alison" of this magnificent return to form. And further evidence of Brutal Youth's broad range of mood swings is found on first single "13 Steps Lead Down." A vicious satire on a 12-step self-help program that goes a tiptoe too far, it has the same investigative wallop as "Watching The Detectives" or "Mystery Dance." And it heralds Costello's first indispensable album of the '90s.
It was late 1976 when petulant computer programmer Declan MacManus (aka Costello) first entered Pathway Studios in Islington to begin cutting the pointed songs that would comprise his My Aim Is True album (reissued in 1993 with bonus tracks on Rykodisc's rousing four-CD boxed set, Elvis Costello & The Attractions 2½ Years).
Late in 1992, almost two decades after his gloriously pissed-off debut, Elvis returned to Pathway, a broom closet of a recording space tucked in an alleyway in a working class suburb of London. Pete Thomas, drummer for Elvis' long-disbanded Attractions group, joined him on the demo sessions, which resulted in the uproariously rocking "Kinder Murder" and "20% Amnesia," both found on Brutal Youth. And there are dim bulbs and culprits galore in each of Costello's other gumshoe narratives of treachery, each paced by a snare drum that prods and pummels like a prosecuting attorney.
"To be honest," says Costello, "what sparked my going back to Pathway was just the desire to take a weekend off from my ongoing work with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters record . I'd periodically pop back into Pathway to do experimental things, and in this case Wendy James [formerly of the pop band Transvision Vamp], who I'd never met, had run into Pete and said she would love me to write a song for her. I couldn't imagine writing one song, and thought I'd write a whole story based around a fictional character." That effort became James' 93 solo album.
"Pete and I done all these songs from the Friday to the Sunday, and we decided we wanted to keep going. Because I found I actually liked recording there again, with the tiny room, the eight-track machine, the old perforated acoustic panels on the walls, the special drum sound..."
...And the irresistible urge to once more reduce his art to its trim, testy essentials, just as he had during the 24 hours of recording (at a cost of 2,000 pounds) that yielded My Aim Is True.
"Once I got excited, and wrote some more songs," says Costello, "I realized that I needed a more solid kind of rhythmic base, so I needed" — he hesitates before wryly emphasizing — "a band again if Pete and I were going to get any kind of decent feel, rather than trying to do this piece by piece."
His notion of the evolving project was reflected in the tentative title he assigned it, "Idiophone," which he says "is a word for an instrument derived from the substance of which it's made. A triangle would be an idiophone, whereas a drum, which is a skin head and a wooden shell, would not be. It was maybe a bit obscure," he chuckles, "but I was thinking of things that have a unique construction, like an individual singer's voice..."
...Or an irreplaceable musical alliance.
"[Attractions keyboardist] Steve [Nieve] joined Pete and me, and then I asked Nick Lowe to come in and play bass and contribute ideas," Costello continues, referring in the latter case to the man who piloted his debut record and also was his original stable mate on the Stiff label. "When Nick felt a few songs were not his speed, I brought in Mitchell Froom to help produce, and Mitchell had been working with [former Attractions bassist] Bruce Thomas," to whom Elvis had not spoken since a strained parting in the '80s. "Once we got to talking it seemed silly for us not to do it."
And now an Attractions tour is planned! Yet prior to his collaboration with the Brodsky classical chamber group, Costello had long skirted involvement with any one performing unit. The Attractions were absent on his celebrated Spike (1989) after having had studio and touring involvement in nearly every previous studio project from This Year's Model (1978) to Blood & Chocolate (1986). Meanwhile, Costello was enjoying home life in the Wicklow Mountains below Dublin with actress/musician O'Riordan, former bassist of the Pogues, whom he'd married in May 1986. Always an eclectic, he played with the Royal London Philharmonic Orchestra, wrote songs with Paul McCartney and Ruben Blades, and even set poet W.B. Yeats' "A Drunken Man's Praise Of Sobriety" to music for Britain's Yeats festival.
"And I find it amazing that I've managed to be making records for 17 years!" says Costello. "But I have no desire to be 17 again — I didn't particularly like it the first time. On the other hand, I think it's good to reflect upon the journey you might have taken from the time you were that age. My wife Cait knows that I've tried all these years to write one completely uplifting record about the positive side of life, but" — he bursts into laughter — "it seems it just doesn't exist! I also considered calling this record 'Crank,' but you don't want to leave people without any hope for me. Let's say I'm suspicious of artificial optimism, although I quite enjoy the real thing."