It's easy to spot a disenchanted Elvis Costello fan. They're the ones who still yell for "Alison" or "Pump It Up" at concerts. The ones who cringed when Costello grew his hair, sneered when he gained weight, and panicked when he started hanging out with Paul McCartney. The ones who listened to The Juliet Letters once or twice, then threw it aside as soon as Rykodisc started reissuing the old albums. And, the problem is, those folks might have the right idea.
The past few years, beginning roughly when he signed with Warner Bros. in 1988, indeed have been a difficult stretch for longtime Elvis Costello fans. Even before he got photographed with Jerry Garcia, he appeared to be sliding into adulthood a little too comfortably and putting his inspired rock 'n' roll upstart days behind. His world-class band, the Attractions, broke up for reasons more personal than musical, leaving him trying unsuccessfully to create the same magic with session pros. And last years The Juliet Letters, a collaboration with classical music's Brodsky Quartet, proved easier to admire than it was to sit through; its cycle of epistolary art pieces left one hungry for just one great, cheap-shot rock song.
Brutal Youth (Warner Bros.), Costello's new creative comeback, has at least 10 great cheap-shot rock songs. It's also got everything his early albums had: superb melodies, punkish anger, sarcastic wit, and, best of all, the Attractions. It's even got the best of what his last few albums had: creative arrangements, flashes of tenderness, daring and literate lyrics. The result may not replace whatever your all time favorite Costello album is (mine's a toss up between Get Happy!! and Blood & Chocolate), but it ranks with Neil Young's Ragged Glory or Squeeze's overlooked Some Fantastic Place as a return to form; and the most disenchanted fans are likely to appreciate it the most.
For the most part Brutal Youth comes off like a blatant throwback; and there's no shame in that — not when Costello has so much to throw back to. Producer Mitchell Froom downplays his usual love for sonic doodads in favor of a live-band sound that recalls Nick Lowe's production of the early albums; Lowe himself is along as occasional bassist and guitarist. And though all three Attractions don't appear on every track, the old chemistry does: Keyboardist Steve Nieve is as masterful with left curves as drummer Pete Thomas is with forward motion, while Costello's less shy about playing lead guitar than he was in the old days.
The album's catchiest tunes tend to get matched with it's most venomous lyrics. That's a trick Costello mastered around the time of Armed Forces (1979), and it still works like a charm: "Sulky Girl" trots out three different chorus hooks, all of them killer; the tune of "You Tripped At Every Step" has a tenderness that the singer won't admit to; "20% Amnesia" is one of the half-dozen hardest rockers Costello ever cut. The Celtic-tinged, dark-humored "This Is Hell" is precisely what the new Pogues album should have sounded like. "Clown Strike" harks back musically to his early rockabilly gem "Radio Sweetheart," while while it's lyrics find a non-syrupy way to say "I love you just the way you are." The most memorable track "Kinder Murder," also tells the grisliest story — one in which a barfly goes off to commit a rape between rounds. The singer is clearly appalled, but he tells the story simply and lets you fill in the gaps. It's dramatic constraint with clenched teeth, with a nifty guitar riff worked in to boot.
Other songs return to a favorite Costello theme, that of messed-up romances, but with some grown up twists. "Just About Glad" is one of the ultimate non-love songs, celebrating a fling that never happened and that never should have. "That's a song that had to be written," Costello says from his home in Ireland. "Everyone who's gotten to be my age has probably had that kind of experience. I quite liked the joke of saying something like that, and setting it to a loose, messy kind of sound, like the Faces. It's a humorous song, but so are some or the old ones. The one it most resembles is "Miracle Man" off My Aim Is True. That was humorous too but I don't think many people realized it because I sang it with such fierce expression."
"There always have been autobiographical elements in the songs, but not as many as people thought," he continues. "You don't slit your wrists and bleed all over the record. That idea has appealed to me on occasion and maybe it will again, but it doesn't at the moment. If anything, some of the most heartfelt songs that have ever been written were done with this craft that some people would interpret as distance; but the effect on the listener can be very profound. Take a song like 'What Is This Thing Called Love,' by Cole Porter. It's obviously crafted, not just about a guy bawling about feelings at the moment he felt bereft of love. But it's all the more powerful for having it worked out."
One can easily imagine Costello and the Attractions becoming like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, returning to base every few years between more experimental projects. "If the comparison only goes that far, I'm happy with it," he says. "As a Neil Young fan I'm always happy to see Crazy Horse's name on there because they seem to bring something out of him. But equally, I'm interested in whatever else he chooses to do. With the Attractions, it's no secret that there was some misunderstanding, some bad blood, some ill feeling. Everybody had to scream and shout for a couple of years, but then life goes on. And the possibility of not playing together seemed a lot less interesting than the possibility of playing together."
Not that Costello hasn't made good music without the Attractions — he did his first solo acoustic tour while the band was still together, and made most of the brilliant King Of America using top-shelf studio veterans instead. Still, he tended to flounder once they were out of the picture. At least The Juliet Letters didn't fall into the two major traps of rock/classical fusions: it wasn't unmanageably difficult, like David Byrne's The Forest, or glorified show tunes, like Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio. Still, Costello's melodies were more turgid that usual (the one catchy tune, "Jacksons, Monk And Rowe" was provided by the quartet); and the pieces heavier numbers (the two suicide notes, "Dear Sweet Filthy World" and "Taking My Life In Your Hands") marked the first time he'd descended into bathos.
Also problematic were his last couple of rock albums: Spike (1988) buried great songs like "Veronica" and "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" (and less than great ones like "Satellite" and "Miss Macbeth") behind overly busy arrangements and clever-clever production. It's no small feat to make both the Chieftains and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band sound absolutely joyless. Mighty Like A Rose (1991) was intentionally harder to deal with, containing some of the bleakest material in the Costello catalog.
"I did feel very bleak about things at the time, and I wanted the music to be rich enough to carry that. I think it's a very underrated piece, maybe it was a little out-of-time. Plus the werewolf look threw people off," he laughs, referring to his jarring physical appearance at the time. "I did it to get all those women off my back. All the midnight phone calls, the pleading, the flowers... I mean, I'm a happily married man. I couldn't stand it anymore, and the beard worked like a charm. But now I'm beautiful again, like Little Richard."
But seriously, folks, there's even a "lost" Costello album from this period. During the Rose sessions he cut an album's worth of cover tunes, many of which he's performed live in recent years — ranging from Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo," to Jesse Winchester's "Payday." Though the instrumental backup is a bit laid-back, Costello does some inspired singing on the album — especially on Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," the on stage highlight of the Rose tour. The disc was set for release last year (under the title The Kojak Assortment) then yanked indefinitely; meanwhile he's none too pleased that it's been bootlegged.
"I don't want to have criminals telling me when to release my records. I'll put it out when the right time comes. If you've heard it, you know it's a very relaxed record — not me trying to knock the world down, just playing songs with some musicians I like. And they're songs that people may not know the original versions of. It's not like I did 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' or 'Great Balls Of Fire.' I waited 30 years to sing some of those songs, so I figure I can wait another five to put these versions out." Also shelved was an EP called Encores, including the non-LP material — Kurt Weill's "Lost In The Stars," Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows," and an unrecorded Costello tune — performed on the Juliet Letters tour. "Let's face it: The CD revolution is complete now, and everything you've ever wanted is available — so people think that everything that exists should be available. Well, I don't agree; I think there's still a right time for things to come out. The Juliet Letters is still out there, and I think it's something that people are still discovering."
"All music's real to me when I'm doing it. You do The Juliet Letters when you have those songs, and you do this when you have these songs. I prefer this at the moment, just because it's what I happen to be doing. You don't have to renounce rock 'n' roll, like it's a religion, to take up more serious art music. It's all serious, and it's all as much fun as you want to make it."
Costello is well aware, however, that many fans are likely to be more comfortable with Brutal Youth than with the last three albums put together. "It doesn't bother me. I've got a million of 'em."