"I'm having the time of my life / Or something quite like it," Elvis Costello sings on his raucous, caustic new album, Brutal Youth. The couplet reminds a listener that this British rocker is incapable of anything less than intense ambivalence: Even as the first line offers what is for Mr. Costello a rare display of happiness, the second casts doubt on whether the feeling is genuine. While most of the album's lyrics are filled with more typical expressions of anger, sarcasm and frustration, the melodies include some of Mr. Costello's airiest, most intricate and witty compositions.
Brutal Youth reunites Mr. Costello with the Attractions, the crack three-man band with whom he recorded a series of ferocious albums in the late 70's and early 80's. And coming after his most dramatic stylistic departure — the fussy pop chamber music he made with the Brodsky Quartet on last year's The Juliet Letters — Brutal Youth sounds like a strategic retreat, a return to Mr. Costello's earliest, rawest method of record making.
But rather than echoing punk-era rebelliousness, Brutal Youth is very much the shrewd creation of a pop pro pushing 40. If Mr. Costello has exhausted or outgrown the great theme he announced at the start of his career — the notion that he was motivated primarily by "revenge and guilt" — he is also no longer so youthful and self-absorbed. His new goal is to achieve a paradox: exhilarating songs about the misery of others. Most of Brutal Youth is a collection of sketches about unhappy lovers, lying husbands, bitter wives and sullen offspring. There is little joy in these lives; pleasure comes only in Mr. Costello's pointed descriptions and the dialogue he creates for them.
In the album's opening cut, "Pony St.," a mother and daughter trade contemptuous verses: the girl finds the older woman's sunny, aging-hippie ways mortifying; her mother is annoyed by the girl's hostile, Generation X anomie. "Kinder Murder" tells the story of a rape committed by a young soldier, set to a chipper melody. In "Sulky Girl," one of a number of clever rock pastiches on Brutal Youth, the Attractions appropriate the keyboard and percussion hook of the Zombies' 1969 hit, "Time of the Season," to tell the story of a heartless flirt. And, most nervily, "London's Brilliant Parade" crosses a whimsical Kinks song like "Waterloo Sunset" with some Beatle-y psychedelia, as Mr. Costello offers a rambling, impressionistic walking tour of London.
But Mr. Costello, a prolific composer, has long been capable of turning out scores of such knowing, above-average tunes. He buries the best song on Brutal Youth — one of his finest ever — deep into the album: "Just About Glad," a vehemently simple rant with a pummeling beat that denies all the thoughtless hedonism rock-and-roll is supposed to be about.
In "Just About Glad," a narrator tries in vain to convince himself that it was a good idea not to have an affair with a woman he's obviously still crazy about: He's "just about glad" — but not quite — that they never "did the thing that we were going to do." His plaintive voice reduced to a hoarse creak, Mr. Costello's pent-up lover explodes in a fury laced with despair: He knows it's too late to persuade this woman all over again that they should be together, that he's blown the great romance of his life. An irresistibly catchy song about a terrible failure of nerve, "Just About Glad" is an utterly original rock song.
The standard line on Mr. Costello is that he's a master rock lyricist with a limited voice, but the strengths of Brutal Youth contradict this. If anything, the intricate wordplay here is often facile, occasionally lazy, sometimes unforgivable ("the murmuring brooks had better speak up"). Mr. Costello's singing, however, is superlative throughout, frequently investing a song with complex emotions nowhere to be found in its lyric. Like all great rock vocalists, Mr. Costello can use his voice — though it is a thin moan, alternately reedy and nasal — to convey all the subtleties of speech. There is music in his gulps and yelps and hesitations, in the way he rushes a line or withholds its last word to create suspense.
Most of Brutal Youth consists of skillful, enjoyable songs in which nothing is at stake for Mr. Costello as an artist. What increases their worth is the slashing interplay between his vocal performances and the blasting noise of the Attractions. After a period of experimentation and aimlessness, Mr. Costello has returned to form with this deceptively casual dazzler.