Three of the most widely anticipated albums of 1994 will arrive in stores Tuesday. They are Elvis Costello's first album with members of the Attractions in seven years, Nine Inch Nails' full-length follow-up to its 1989 platinum debut and the third disc by Seattle heavyweights Soundgarden.
On his last album with the Attractions, Blood and Chocolate, Costello re-opened the psychic wounds of their first album together, the 1978 classic This Year's Model.
Brutal Youth ruminates on that anger and its consequences, and how things might have been different. It's a good deal more subtle than Costello's most celebrated Attractions albums, but the emotional investment is no less palpable, and the music — though more spacious, less claustrophobic — is no less potent.
Costello's early albums were notable for their withering put-downs of various lovers, and though Brutal Youth can be equally unsparing, its venom is no longer gender specific. The game, as played by both sides, is a degrading spectacle, these songs strongly suggest.
"If you need instruction in mindless destruction, I'll show you a thing or two," he sings on the opening "Pony Street."
Brutal Youth is a multilayered work, as sophisticated musically as it is lyrically. The musical in-jokes alone are a source of endless amusement: the "Lola" guitar on "London's Brilliant Parade," the "Like a Rolling Stone" riff on "Rocking Horse Road," the shards of lyrics from songs by the Beatles and Culture Club twisted into new shapes.
The Attractions — keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas (who came on board after Nick Lowe played on half the tracks) — provide a gripping framework for Costello's wordplay. In the opening seconds of each song, the listener's attention is immediately piqued: The piano and bass figure that ushers in "Pony Street," the heavily reverbed guitar and voice that introduces "Kinder Murder," the spare symmetry of voice, guitar, drums and organ on "Clown Strike."
While acknowledging "all the passions of your youth are tranquilized and tamed" on "This Is Hell," Costello still wrestles with "the small humiliations that your memories pile up."
So "20% Amnesia" opens with a scream at England's class system, "'What is your destiny?' the policewoman said." And later, "There are promises to break and dreams to kill."
All the while, the Attractions rise and fall with Costello's every vocal inflection. They're playing like a band — listening to Costello and to each other — and not like the antagonists who used to blow through "Pump It Up" as if it were a race rather than a song. Nieve is particularly brilliant, whether playing a disconcerting lullaby on "This Is Hell" or offsetting the singer's barbed-wire guitar with bell-like chords on "All the Rage."