Costello is 39 now — oldish for a rock singer, but youthful for a rock elder statesman. Perhaps it was a brooding reflection on age that got him to regroup his original band, The Attractions, for this album. The most immediate result is a record that's substantially different from his last few, and among his best. Having worked his way through a classical phase (with the Brodsky Quartet), and the unfocused miscellanea of Mighty Like A Rose and Spike, Costello has returned to the jangly guitared New Wave pop that made his name. Coincidentally he has also dispatched the religious-cult-leader beard, and now resembles his mid-twenties self.
The resumption of traditional Costello values is complemented by a freshly invigorated faculty for melody and lyric writing. For the last decade, Costello has produced some of pop's most boring, tuneless ejaculations, the tedium of which was overlooked in the rush to praise his "trenchant, articulate" lyrics. The music on Brutal Youth is a huge improvement on, well, almost anything Costello has done since 1979's Armed Forces. And though the lyrics still sport the occasional dopey "profundity," they're mainly shrewd and full of twinkling bon mots.
What has kept Costello going for 17 years is his polished-to-a-lustre anger at injustice, global and personal (especially personal). He can, and usually does, out-vitriol both Van Morrison and Morrissey, but Brutal Youth is defined by a lower-grade grumbliness, as if he realises the futility of arguing but isn't ready to desist.
As he complains on the guitar-blasting "20% Amnesia," "This is all your glorious country thinks of your life." Then there's "Just About Glad," a deceptively-boppy three minutes in which El wheezily regrets not having had a romantic fling. Further proof of peevishness surfaces regularly: on the silky "Clown Strike," he croons, with an audible rolling of his eyes: "Why don't you get some pride?" The preceding "This Is Hell," which, chivvied by Steve Nieve's piano, tinkles along like a nursery rhyme, features the superbly grumpy remark, "I was listening to my favourite things / But by Julie Andrews and not John Coltrane."
Bitter harangues are the exception here, but there are a couple. "Kinder Murder" combines unplanned pregnancy and child abuse in one tastelessly perky tune, and "13 Steps Lead Down," starring The Attractions at their 1978-esque best, seems to condemn sexual deviation.
Speaking of The Attractions, their contribution shouldn't be trivialised. Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas (and Nick Lowe, who plays bass on half the 15 tracks) are the making of this album. Costello supplied the words, voice and guitar-playing, but it's the still-pertly-rocking Attractions who set the thing alight. Makes you wish the seventies hadn't ended.