Buying a new Elvis Costello record is a little like venturing into a room full of people suffering from multiple personality disorders. For over eighteen years and as many albums, the bespectacled hard has confronted the public with a kaleidoscopic array of dramatis personae: angry young men; sadists, misogynists; satirists; moralists, cynics, innocents, comedians, dissidents, lovers, lager louts, poets and philosophers.
However, his latest album has a familiar feel. For Brutal Youth represents (to borrow a phrase) back to basics for the versatile musician. The raw emotions, aggressive sounds and densely-packed lyrics on his new collection of songs herald the return of his old band The Attractions and more than echo the in-yer-face vigour of late Seventies' classic albums such as This Year's Model and Armed Forces.
But this year's Elvis Costello is a different model than the angry young man of the Seventies who declared vitriolic war on numerous sections of society: politicans, hypocrites, fat-cats, women. Today's battling knight is showing small chinks in his customary spiky armour.
Sporting narrow, tortoise-shell specs and an almost-tidy haircut, Elvis admits to a fear of flying — "I'm always nervous if a lot of nuns or children get on the same plane as me," he confessed. "Because I think a passenger-list like that is perfect material for good tragic headlines."
But Elvis has no talent for standing still. With fifteen albums under his belt, he has an inability to work at anything other than the speed of light. With an almost apologetic air, Elvis explained that on Brutal Youth "about five songs were written in one day, in terms of music. The ideas just kept pouring out."
THE thirteen tracks on his latest offering return to some of Costello's favourite stomping-grounds: greedy governments, human perfidy, social decay, inner conflict and the whole gamut of womankind — from seductresses to victims.
Elvis dismisses charges of misogyny with a shrug: "A lot of my women are fighting women — except perhaps "the stone-washed damsel on a junk-food run" in 'Kinder Murder'," he said. "None of the men think she is worth a second thought; neither the boy who rapes her or the man who says she could have said no. It doesn't matter whether its a thug swilling lager in a pub or a judge who says she deserved it for wearing a short skirt — the attitude to the girl is still the same," elaborated Elvis with a sudden surge of intensity.
Throughout his career, Elvis has persistently pointed the finger of doom at politicians. During a packed gig in Dublin's National Stadium during the Eighties, his bleak, impassioned rendition of his anti-Thatcher song "Tramp the Dirt Down" brought goosebumps to the collective flesh of the 2,000-strong crowd.
On Brutal Youth the lyrics may be more obscure but the song remains the same. One of the album's more hectic tracks, "20% Amnesia," there is a reference to a man "in his bed-time boot-boy jersey / ringing up some fantasy tart." A dig at the graceless former Tory minister David Mellor? "I absolutely could not comment on that," said Elvis with a devilish cackle.
Elvis is adamant that his reunion with The Attractions — Pete Thomas, Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Nick Lowe — does not detract from his recent classical recordings with the Brodsky Quartet. "With the presence of The Attractions, people are going to say 'Oh thank God, he's come to his senses. Forget all that high-flown stuff, he's back to rock and roll,' said Elvis. "But the truth is I stand absolutely by everything I've done in the meantime — no apologies are forthcoming," he added with a polite but oh-so-steely smile.