Brutal Youth, proves that Elvis — the other Elvis — is far from dead. In a long-awaited reunion with the Attractions. Elvis Costello offers another creative and solid album. Brutal Youth brings back the angry punk rock that Elvis Costello and the Attractions made in the '70s, the eccentricities of Costello's solo album Spike and the classiness of his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters.
Like Costello, the Attractions — Pete Thomas, Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Nick Lowe — have definitely improved with age. All of the songs on Brutal Youth are polished. Drummer Pete Thomas never just keeps time; he keeps the listener's attention by trying all sorts of rhythms and instruments, whether it's bongo drums or a hip-hop beat. Nick Lowe, on bass, makes youngsters like Flea take notice and Elvis' guitar is still crisp and angry, as is his voice.
The Juliet Letters seems, in retrospect, a great singing lesson. On Brutal Youth, Costello has learned to use his wavery voice to his advantage, like on "Still Too Soon to Know." He sings like he is dragging his notes up a flight of steps — his rough voice adds greater feeling to the heart-felt lyrics. After all, Costello never was a balladeer, but he handles songs like "This Is Hell" and "Favourite Hour" (which may very well have been a Juliet leftover) perfectly. He surprisingly, and skilfully, tries out a falsetto on "London's Brilliant Parade."
Breaking out of Spike's shadow, Elvis' return to the Attractions enhances the creativity that album displayed. On "This is Hell," the piano sounds like a music box and the tune like a lullaby. But it's a twisted lullaby: "This is hell, this is hell / It never gets better or worse / This is hell, this is hell / Hell is heaven in reverse?" Like the rest of the songs, this one is smartly written. Elvis describes hell as a place where "my favorite things are playing again and again, but its by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane."
The song writing on Brutal Youth is as fresh as ever. The first single, "Thirteen Steps Lead Down" is an especially refined piece. Although it starts out sounding like an early acoustic demo (like the ones found on Costello's box set), it soon turns into angry but intelligent Attractions-era tune.
Brutal Youth, like other Costello works, has its fair share of love songs from a unique point of view. On "Clown Strike," he teases his lover who has gone overboard with spontaneity, that she is a circus performer. Then he struggles with a fleeting love that still doesn't seem to go away on "Still Too Soon to Know." The bongo drums, harmonium and "di-di-dip" back-up singing are inventive reflections on the artistry of Spike.
While Spike was in part influenced by music you might hear at Mardi Gras, Brutal Youth leans on styles from the '50s and '60s. Elvis' guitar on "All the Rage" is bluesy, evoking memories of Derek and the Dominos and the lesser-known Soul Survivors. There's a Stray Cats/ Eddie and the Cruisers edge to "My Science Fiction Twin." And to complete Brutal Youth's timelessness, the whole album is peppered with slightly doo-woppish back-up singing.
Whereas Spike was not well-received when it came out in 1989, Brutal Youth refines what the critics say didn't work on that release. Different musical styles are tested on Brutal Youth, as on Spike, but the result here is polished, solid and sophisticated.
With its family album cover art, Brutal Youth is a return to Elvis' roots, as well as to the Attractions. Unusually long, (this one is almost an hour in contrast to Costello's older collections of a dozen two-minute songs) — Brutal Youth is a strong album that proves that Elvis is still a king.