He's not so angry and not so young anymore, but Elvis Costello remains an monolithic icon of the post-punk era. Nothing he could do at this point would change that. He's all set, destined to go down as an all-time great. What's left to prove?
Not much, except that he's still an important pop music talent 17 years after embarking on his per sonal mystery tour. Meeting that challenge isn't much of a test for Declan MacManus, who burst on the scene as Elvis in that landmark year 1977 smack dab in the middle of a furious punk rock explosion.
Brutal Youth marks a return to Costello's musical youth. The realignment with his original band, the Attractions, will thrill fans who were there in the beginning, when the skinny geek with the horn-rimmed glasses and razor-sharp tongue muscled his way between silly disco, clumsy prog rock and vicious punk to establish his own tiny niche.
Drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and bass player Bruce Thomas haven't lost their eternally sharp edge, as evidenced on "13 Steps Lead Down," "Pony Street" and the 13 other cuts that total nearly an hour of what we can now safely call "old wave." Nick Lowe, a legendary producer and musician in his own right, joins in on the fun in both capacities.
Nieve's circus-like organ squealing is a wild throwback to My Aim is True and Imperial Bedroom, two classic Costello releases from the late 1970s. The sound recalls the days when New Wave was the rage, and if the self-proclaimed Angry Young Man wasn't the king of the movement, he was at least on the royal court.
"13 Steps," "Pony Street," "Kinder Murder" and "Sulky Girl" are guaranteed to prompt flashbacks to the bygone era, at least for the graying masses that remember how dismal rock 'n roll was during the Ford and Carter administrations. The songs, similar in feel to "The Other Side of Summer" from 1992's Mighty Like a Rose, could easily mix into a variety of Costello's dozen-odd albums and not ruin the tempo.
The midsection of Brutal Youth is a span of softer tracks. "You Tripped at Every Step" and "Still Too Soon to Know" are massaged, pristine productions more similar to Costello's works on more recent offerings like Spike and Mighty Like a Rose.
Costello rounds out the experiment with raucous ragtime rockers "20 Amnesia" and "Clown Strike," dead ringers for his stripped-down 1986 album, King of America, which featured lots of upright acoustic bass, sassy percussion and a 1940s jazz mood.
The Attractions reforming doesn't have the earth-shocking significance of a Beatles reunion, but it will no doubt help make Brutal Youth a success. Costello is aging well, still churning out well-crafted and cutting songs a generation after his prime. This release tells us that the fire is still burning within.