Pray to God that Elvis Costello never writes a song about you and relationships. Rather Mike Leigh or Ken Loach documents you, rather a fly on the wall develops the powers of speech. The lovers in these deceptively shapely pop songs ore exposed, stripped, dissected. You'd think maybe Costello has done this enough already. Shown that the emperor, the squaddie and the waitress, have no clothes and a lousy body. Hell no. There's no respite from his spite, his bark, his bite. This is vitriolic and perversely, blindingly romantic. This is another bitch of an album from the old dog.
New tricks? Not as such. More songs about failed affairs, male folly, and social decay. He does the latter better than anyone — no herd mentality bleats of smash the system, but plenty of subjective lists and catchwords which accumulate and accelerate till the captive audience are trapped on that subterranean fin de siècle ghost train with a one-way ticket to saturation, which is where we're at according to the photographic memory of Costello's poetic muse. "Good" poets are supposed to find light in the midst of despair, right? F*** that. Costello locates Hades amid the neon tat of Oxford Street.
That this reunion with Attractions Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas (plus Nick Lowe) is his best record in ages is surprising because (a) Mighty Like A Rose was just great, (b) old school tie jobs are invariably saddo indulgences, and (c) in terms of sound it's closest to the earliest spurts such as This Year's Model and Armed Forces, which I, contrarily, found thin and reedy. But everyone involved has matured in the most commendable way imaginable. When it rocks, it's savage (see: guitars on "13 Steps Lead Down"). When it broods, it's misty blue (see: "Still Too Soon To Know"). Costello revisits old sketches and drags them kicking and screaming to a state of virtual reality, which is as good as the fantasy theatre of literate pop music gets. This boasts more insight than Trust, more wrath than Mussolini, more love than Tristran and Isolde.
While "Pony Street" examines the blurring of the generation gaps and the futility of hollow rebellion, "Kinder Murder" graphically depicts a sordid rape ("a stonewashed damsel on a junk food run / The one false eyelash..."). Two tracks in, this is blazing. And radiant pop simultaneously, all piano trills and snare raps, like The Posies scripted by a young Amis. "This Is Hell" supports its title with ample proof; "Clown Strike" and "You Tripped At Every Step" hint at lush, white soul while spotlighting private humiliations. "20 Per Cent Amnesia" is a raucous gust in the manner of "Tokyo Storm Warning." There's an embarrassment of wit and waggishness in the tortured vaudeville of "London's Brilliant Parade" and "My Science Fiction Twin."
"Sulky Girl," the single which carries acute but intangible echoes of past refrains, peers under the rocks of stupidity and intelligence, cruelty and beauty, and revels in an archly smart-ass ending. I've resisted the temptation to quote every stunning couplet on the album — believe me, there are hundreds. You'd seek far and wide before topping the crescendo of "Just About Glad." "And though the passion still flickers / It never got into our knickers / For all of the courage that we never had / I'm just about glad / If I'm the greatest lover that you never had / I'm just about glad."
Closing with the incalculably forlorn "The Favourite Hour," this is an emotional whirlwind, a disciplined stab at perfection of form, a jaded howl of unabated anguish and a bloody good beat record. And he sings like a recently betrayed ashtray. I do hope Brutal Youth isn't wasted on the brutally young. You grow out of most flashes in the pan. Lightening like this you grow into.