It's hard not to let expectations get out of hand. Brutal Youth is Elvis Costello's first reunion with his band the Attractions since 1987's Blood and Chocolate — his last consistently brilliant album. Old pal Nick Lowe also plays bass on about a third of the cuts.
Brutal Youth does, indeed, represent a return to form, especially after The Juliet Letters, last year's unsatisfying collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet. However, sometimes the new album represents a little too much retrenchment — Costello almost sounds like an Elvis impersonator on tracks such as "Pony St.," "Still Too Soon to Know," "London's Brilliant Parade" and "Just About Glad." After four or five listens, I started to succumb to Costello's familiar, acerbic charm, but it's naggingly obvious he can write songs like these in his sleep.
The layered production by Costello and Mitchell Froom is also problematic on some of the tracks. When Costello falls back on his vintage Attractions sound, the detailed arrangements are more preposessing than the songs themselves. At first, it's as if someone feared the lettuce was going a little limp and put too much dressing on the salad. However, after you listen a few times, the songs begin to assert themselves more.
Froom and Costello are more compatible on tracks that sound more like the Elvis of 1991's Mighty Like a Rose — which Froom helped produce. The jazz-R&B collision of "Clown Strike" is full of spooky organ and guitar, a fascinating contrast for the odd peppy-melancholy melody and zippy backing vocals. Costello's buzzing, snaggle-toothed guitar and thumping bass line and Pete Thomas' wide-open drumming are well balanced on "Kinder Murder." This cold-blooded tale is among Costello's most menacing — with a hummable chorus that runs "She should have kept her knees together / should have kept her mouth shut."
The chorus of "You Tripped at Every Step" is awfully similar to "Every Day I Write the Book," but it sure does get into your brain after a while. Clinking piano and soulful but weird backing vocals help twist the song further away from its model. The lurching "20% Amnesia" is a sort of Tom Waits-does-the-Beatles rant, and Costello's throat-shredding vocal is his most convincing. Best classic nasty Costello line on the album: "You're talking like a duchess but you're still a waitress."
About half of Brutal Youth is rather frustrating. It's so very like Costello and the Attractions at their peak, but the melodies are just a little too familiar, and some of the lyrics seem tossed off (for example, "'My Favorite Things' is playing again and again / But it's by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane").
However, four or five melodies really kick in after a few plays. And Costello still has a knack for sketching a bad relationship with one telling phrase, such as "Although I'll never be as unhappy as you want me to be…" Most important, even when he's disappointing, Costello is not boring. Even when a Costello album has as many relatively weak tracks as this one, he still makes you look forward to his next release — and the one after that.