In the same time it took all those wacky Northwesterners to revert punk back upon itself, Elvis Costello has moved from the late 70s quintessential U.K. pop voice to the late 80s' experimentalist and (almost) back again. With Brutal Youth, Costello has, as the title implies, retrogressed to the musical environment of witty and youthful anger that made Armed Forces and This Year's Model successful. Unfortunately, the music of the Attractions was timely then, and isn't now. Along with fellow Attractions Nick Lowe and Bruce Thomas, Costello has rehashed this same angst-infused wit and produced an album of tame, boring Costello cliches.
For instance, "20% Amnesia" best epitomizes the slashing effervescence of "Radio, Radio." It's a fun song, if you're not sick of that high, whining harmony fused into every other line. But it's almost as if the song can't figure out where it's going, or to whom it's speaking. Costello's screamed intro and the demo-sounding drum track both say "Hey. lads, we're back in London and it's 1977!" But that nutty xylophone loop halfway through the tune just says, "Hey, chaps, we're here in London and we wish it was 1977." Costello's mastery of the pop riff is apparent here, but not as glaringly as his age.
"London's Brilliant Parade" would sound right at home on the flip side of 1988's Spike, which isn't saying. much. It's heavy, lofty and boring, with lines like "Just look at me, I'm having the time of my life, or something quite like it." "Clown Strike" tries its hand at doo-wop blues, but never gets off the ground. Must be that epidemic of retro-rehashing going around.
And what's this "Just About Glad" silliness? Sounds like Mod Night at the Grand Ol' Opry. Costello's impulse to record an album with a garage-made feel hasn't reduced the complexity of his instrument arrangement a bit. In fact, his songs have never sounded so crowded. Take "13 Steps Lead Down," whose mixing of instruments doesn't compare to the production technique that made "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" such a sonic masterpiece.
I must admit I was itching to find one saving grace on this album. Enter "Rocking Horse Road," a slow, smooth tune sustained by a serene, reserved guitar riff. The song sinks, however, into the same, overdone lyrical cliches and overdone instrument layering I found on "20% Amnesia": "Crying on Rocking Horse Road, or something quite like it." Heard that one before?
Maybe Costello, while raiding his twenty-year-old stores of song ideas, should have run across "Beyond Belief." The song begins, "History repeats the old conceits, the quip replies, the same defeats," a line with more truth today than ever.