Three things happen to rock stars when they hang around too long. First, they lose their spunk (their anger, their passion, their frustration) and end up trading in their rock 'n' roll shoes for a pair of La Brea Tar Pit booties. Second, they drop any pretense of invention or experimentation — playing becomes its own reward. (Blech!) And third, they start thinking that real communication can come from the artifice of pop songs. Eric Clapton's response to the death of his son should never have been shared with the world in an icky pop song, much less an icky pop song written for the sound track of a movie about a cop hooked on drugs. It didn't bring us any closer to Eric's pain; it just made him look like a sellout, an emotional cripple, and a weenie.
Elvis Costello, on the other hand, has tried, over the course of his last few records, to avoid falling into at least the first two holes. Since jettisoning the Attractions, the incisive trio he recorded ten albums with, he's turned to a diverse slate of musicians, from the other Elvis's onetime guitarist James Burton to Tom Waits crony Marc Ribot. He's also occasionally abandoned conventional pop formats and instrumentation. On last year's The Juliet Letters, a collaborative song cycle with the Brodsky Quartet, Costello attempted to keep the spunk alive, swapping his acidic cider vinegar for a more mature, if diluted, balsamic vinaigrette.
Of course, the third hole — the one about relating to the world via songs — has always been one of Costello's favorite places to wallow. From the outset, Elvis established himself as a highly literate and highly literary songwriter capable of creating both startling epiphanies and utter banalities, even if the border between the two was often indiscernible. For instance, on 1980's Get Happy!! he sang the line, "You lack lust / You're so lackluster." Over the ensuing 14 years, I've spent roughly equal amounts of time thinking that line was genius and thinking it was drivel.
Costello's first songs were violent reactions to the world and to his craft. Songs like "Alison" and "Radio, Radio" were evidence of his grappling to make sense of a barrage of emotions and thoughts. But as people grow older and begin to assimilate the world's oddness and cruelty, they learn to process these things too. Their impact lessens; the depth of their feltness shallows. Costello has learned what this cycle of events and reactions is made of. He has learned how to produce the product — the apparent result of an event — even in the conspicuous absence of the event itself.
This is what is known as "craft." And, if nothing else, Elvis Costello is a consummate craftsman. Much like John Updike or Frank Stella or the Coen brothers, he is a master of surfaces that hint at complex and reasoned strata beneath. His songs are wrought with an overwhelming richness of detail, both essential and incidental, so intricate as to suggest a design driven as much by fate as by artistry.
On the newly released Brutal Youth, Elvis is reunited with the Attractions. And together they've moved back into the little rock house they built and added on to through the late 70s and the 80s. That Brutal Youth bears more of a sonic resemblance to Armed Forces, their 1979 pop picture book, than it does to later, more diverse albums like Imperial Bedroom or Blood and Chocolate is telling. On the new record, Costello's foibles seem suddenly apparent. In 1979 Armed Forces came across as a surprising infusion of punk indignation and new wave hyperactivity with pulsing soul bass lines and stately piano figures. But in 1994 those same ingredients seem explicitly derivative and exceedingly dated. The Attractions have become something far more offensive than old; they've become old-fashioned. And, for Elvis's part, the studied, even obsessive nature of his compositions can't be overcome by his newly tempered temper. Brutal Youth comes off sounding like a tour through a wax museum: Here is our spirited pop single ("13 Steps Lead Down"). Here's our Kurt Weill punk anthem ("20% Amnesia"). Over here is our Isley Brothers soul number ("Clown Strike"). And here is our heart-wrenching confessional ("Rocking Horse Road").
Elvis Costello's best records have always come when the challenge has been the greatest. He's the kind of guy who rises to a dare, who says, "Wanna bet I can't hop that fence?" Imperial Bedroom was an album full of fences; part of its brilliance was Costello's refusal to shrink from its audacious challenges. The stunning records King of America and Blood and Chocolate, released just nine months apart, were as wildly schizophrenic in genre and mood as any two back-to-back records in pop music history. But on Brutal Youth Costello's sole preoccupation seems to be to prove he's still got it, which is the most convincing evidence that he ain't.