New York — In a midtown hotel room, Elvis Costello sits sipping tea and puncturing expectations. His new album, Brutal Youth, is his first in seven years recorded with the Attractions, his former comrades in arms during the rock 'n' roll revolution of the late '70s.
He may be hitting the road with that band this spring for the first time since 1986. But Costello resists assigning any special significance to it all.
"I just wanted to record with a combo again," he said, "and this is the best one I know."
He won't even acknowledge ever having parted company with keyboardist Steve Nieves bass player Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas.
"We never really broke up," Costello declared. "I just announced I wanted to make some records without them."
Given such deflation, it's no surprise Costello acts the innocent when its mentioned that the first track on Brutal Youth briefly lifts a riff from "Radio Radio," one of the signature songs Costello recorded in 1978 with the Attractions.
"Actually," he said, "it was supposed to sound like the Who."
All of which only shows how far Costello will go to make sure nobody gets the wrong idea about this reunion. The last thing he wants anyone to think is that he's succumbing to the nostalgia of critics and fans for the harsh punk-pop simplicity of his most popular albums of the late '70s/early '80s albums, recorded with the Attractions, including This Year's Model and Armed Forces.
To that end, the Attractions aren't even billed as a unit on the album; instead, each musician is listed separately.
While Brutal Youth, which hits the stores earlier this month, boasts a more stripped and fiery sound than Costello's last three albums, It continues the intricate song structures and ambitious lyrics the songwriter has explored for more than a decade.
This summer, Costello turns 40, and if, sitting here in a dark and conservative suit, he looks decidedly middle-aged, Costello has lost none of the venom that established him in the late '70s as one of the angriest of the era's angry young men.
In those frenetic early years of his career, Costello's outpouring of work earned him widespread praise as the best songwriter of his generation. But in the last half-decade Costello has come under increasing criticism for overwhelming his audience with too many releases, packed with material that roams the stylistic map.
In talking to Costello, it becomes clear that the criticism has stung. Just mention his last pop album, Mighty Like a Rose, and Costello immediately launches into how it was received: "Despite what has become the retrospective view of that album, that it was ornate and overdone, there were some extremely spare pieces on there."
In fact, Costello blames the album's mixed reception less on the music than on his appearance in the publicity photos.
"I grew a beard and long hair and I was amazed at how perplexed the world was," said the man whose horn-rimmed glasses and short hair once were symbols of an era. "It was as if I'd gone mad."
Costello's next project didn't disabuse certain listeners of that opinion: He followed Mighty Like a Rose with The Juliet Letters, an adventurous collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, a chamber music group.
"Some people wanted to believe that it was a failed pop record dressed up as a classical record because they were prejudiced against the whole idea of ambition," Costello said.
Yet he admitted that career concerns came into play in choosing his next release. He knew he needed to rebound with something strong. Costello claims the media-friendly reunion with the Attractions happened "in a roundabout way."