Don't think of Brutal Youth, Elvis Costello said, as a reunion with the Attractions. He certainly doesn't.
"We brought in people because we thought they'd do a good job with the songs. It just seemed the right thing to do," he said of his new album, due out Tuesday. "I just sort of gathered them gradually, which is why I don't even think of it as a reunion."
Call it what you will, longtime fans of the British singer/songwriter/musician — who many critics say is equaled only by Bob Dylan — will be thrilled with Brutal Youth. After the classical The Juliet Letters, recorded with the Brodsky Quartet, and the dense Mighty Like a Rose, Costello has returned to the stripped-down sound he and the Attractions used when he smashed the barriers between punk, pop and rock on classic albums such as Trust and Armed Forces.
Like fans of Neil Young, Costello devotees are frustrated with his career at times. He can effortlessly toss off pop/rock classics such as "Alison," "Beyond Belief" or the new songs "This Is Hell" and "London's Brilliant Parade."
But he chooses to spend years exploring other less-familiar terrain.
"I've heard a bit of this kind of talk before," he said. "Those people either have a more traditional or conservative view of what I do. They don't like me to deviate too much from that image.
"In some cases it's people who maybe listened to me when I started and that's their idea of what I do — maybe the first five albums. After that, they start to get a bit perplexed because of the detours. Without doing those things, I think they'd be equally tired of you. They'd say, 'He's just trotting out the same old formula.' So you can't really have it both ways."
"On the other hand ... I understand that attitude. I've had that same attitude about people. I mean, I don't like every Neil Young record, though I'm a big Neil Young fan. My favorite stuff is Ragged Glory, and when he's doing that, I love it."
Other Young diversions, even including Harvest Moon, don't strike Costello as much.
"I'm aware of those people, and I know maybe they get exasperated sometimes by me following my instincts about music and trying to do things that I think are interesting and worthwhile," he said. "I believe in the long run it's richer for the next musical thing you do."
Struggling with a case of bronchitis — a leftover from a Canadian video shoot — Costello, 39, took an hour recently to set the record straight on reunions, classical music and his career twists.
First, the classical album was one of his greatest commercial successes, both in the United States and overseas.
"The Juliet Letters was the biggest-selling album I've ever had my name on in Japan," Costello said. "It's already out-sold Spike and Armed Forces, my other two big sellers."
Worldwide the album has sold 250,000 copies after originally being budgeted for sales of 100,000.
"That's a hell of a lot for a chamber-music record," he said.
Brutal Youth came about when Costello and drummer Pete Thomas returned to London's Pathway Studios, the same eight-track studio in which he recorded My Aim Is True in the late '70s.
"I didn't even tell the record company or anybody that I was starting to make a record," he said. "It was just Pete and I in a studio. He and I were playing the songs live, with him on drums and me on electric guitar and singing live. Then I'd just dub everything else that was needed.
"As much as I enjoyed that, there were other types of songs I was writing that wouldn't suit that kind of recording. They needed more musicians to play them properly."
Producer Mitchell Froom was brought in, as was bassist Nick Lowe and former Attractions pianist Steve Nieve.
"Shortly after that, Mitchell said there are a couple of the songs that (bassist Bruce Thomas would play great on," he said. "The next thing I knew it was the Attractions in the studio, without anybody really noticing."
It wasn't quite that simple. Years ago, Bruce Thomas had protested bitterly when Costello had started working with musicians other than the Attractions. Thomas even wrote a book, thinly veiled as a novel, blasting his former boss.
"You know, a couple of us haven't been getting along terribly well," Costello said diplomatically. "To be honest, I don't think very many people, including us, ever expected us to be playing together again.
"But when you think about what's positive about playing together against a squabble you may have had some time ago, you think 'Is it really worth it to let that stand in the way of playing?' It wasn't like 'Oh, well, I've gone on my holiday, now I'll come home and put on my comfortable shoes.' If anything, you know this was going to be a bit more edgy."
Edgy maybe, but Costello quickly used the band's skill to pull together his most compelling set of songs in years.
"Obviously someone like Steve Nieve has a tremendous amount of technique ... and Bruce is the same, and increasingly Pete as well. He listens much more to the other players and is much more concerned with the tone of his drums. The drums don't sound like something stuck on, just rhythm. They're actually an instrument that's giving (the music) character as well."
But he quickly tires of talking about the new album.
"I'm always thinking of the future. There's always another record to make," he said.
So we come to one of his biggest problems: competition with himself. You can't hear all of Costello's music because the record companies simply can't put it out fast enough. By the time they do, he's moved to something else.
His prolific rate of writing is legendary. Last year he wrote an entire album of songs for Wendy James in a single weekend.
"I'm working harder than I have ever been," he said. "I know I've written over 300 songs. A lot of those are for other people. I think I'm working probably much more now. I mean, the year of the Juliet Letters I think I wrote 50 songs" — about one completed song a week.
Wait, there's more. Costello recently mastered the final mix of The Kojak Variety, where he sings some of his favorite songs written by other artists, but he isn't sure if it'll come out this year or next. It wasn't released when originally scheduled last year because it would have interfered with his other project, The Juliet Letters.
Plus he's working on a musical drama, which he hoped to have out this year.
"The musical drama thing was always a little ambitious; when I wrote that, I knew I was making problems," Costello said. "I'm still working on that. It will happen eventually, but it's an ambitious thing to do. Not many people write scripts and lyrics and music and orchestrate it. It's a lot of stuff I've got to learn before I can really confidently move forward."
One area where he can move with confidence is his singing. Once described as reedy and limited, Costello's career detours have forced him to pay attention to his vocal style. And aging has actually helped.
"It's kind of good to think you could get better at something as you get older," Costello said. "Funnily enough, I've got this quirky thing where my voice is actually getting higher.
"My range has increased as I've gotten older. The first five albums, the delivery is very quick. There are only a few songs with any long, sustained notes in them. There are a lot of words.
"Therefore, it's a lot of rattling kind of syllables going by. You wouldn't exactly say it's very melodious or tuneful, although there are some good melodies in some of the songs."
Side trips like his country album, Almost Blue, and the recent classical work forced Costello to push.
"It's obvious from singing those (country) songs that you learn a little bit more about how to control your voice and perhaps that gives you a little bit more expressive quality," he said. "I suppose the same could be true now with The Juliet Letters. Obviously that was a challenge to find a blend with the quartet."