Omit the Beatles and it might rate as the year's biggest reunion.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, once paired as quirkily and comfortably as green eggs and ham, are together again.
In a manner of speaking, anyhow. For Costello's new Brutal Youth disc, they're all in attendance, although the actual A-word doesn't appear on the cover or in the liner notes. Drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Bruce Thomas are credited individually, along with Nick Lowe (the group's early producer), who plays bass on half of the 15 tracks.
Heavy-duty Costello fans will rejoice in every echo of the caustic commentaries and sloppy punk playing that defined proudly ragged '70s discs like This Year's Model and Armed Forces. With Brutal Youth, Costello has reverted to rousing nuts-and-bolts instrumentation (compared to the sonic density of recent outings like Mighty Like a Rose) to showcase his prickly lyrics.
The material isn't too far removed from the tunes that appeared on Costello's more precious The Juliet Letters, last year's chamberpop music experiment with The Brodsky Quartet. In fact, one of the set's strongest songs, "This Is Hell," sounds like a Juliet leftover.
"This is hell, I am sorry to tell you it never gets better or worse," Costello sings sweetly over a lullaby score. "But you get used to it after a spell. For heaven is hell in reverse..."
There isn't anything particularly out of character about the weirdos who populate "Kinder Murder" (a rapist), "Sulky Girl" (a flirt) and "My Science Fiction Twin" (an evil double), either.
The true news here is Costello's oddly perky approach to the whole project. "London's Brilliant Parade" takes an amusing, "Penny Lane"-like walking tour of Costello's hometown ("I'm having the time of my life, or something quite like it"). "Just About Glad," for all its underlying angst about a squandered opportunity for love, sounds nearly upbeat.
And Costello is doing the absolute best singing of his career here. His reedy voice seems to be getting beefier with age, but it's the emotion he conveys with it that's so remarkable.