Let's get the obvious out of the way first: there are some irredeemable duds on Brutal Youth. Indeed, several songs are horrifically awful and have rightly earned their place with anything from Goodbye Cruel World and Punch the Clock as among the worst of Elvis Costello's career. "Clown Strike" wanders in no particular direction and is just downright bizarre, "Still Too Soon To Know" is among the sappiest songs Costello has recorded this side of jazz groaner North, and "My Science Fiction Twin"…well, the less said about it the better.
That self-editing would have improved Brutal Youth really isn't debatable; many contemporary reviews of the album rightly zeroed in on these excesses. Robert Christgau, never at a loss for snide words, dismissed the album as "fussy as Streisand, ugly as sin, touched with grace," All Music Guide said that it "lacks guts, no matter how smugly secure it is in its tempered 'experimentation'," and Rolling Stone… ah shit, like today, no one really cared what Rolling Stone said in 1994. Still, nearly 15 years after its original release date the album has aged far better than what those initial reviews would have suggested. It very often sports all the trademarks of Costello's best work: caustic and biting lyrics, insistent arrangements of guitars/drums/keyboards and a few well-placed pokes to the eye of various hapless targets.
Brutal Youth marked the first Elvis Costello with the Attractions album since Blood and Chocolate, though calling it that is a stretch: Nick Lowe played bass on more songs than Bruce Thomas. That the bassist, who landed on Costello's shit list when he violated an apparent code of omerta when his agonizingly dull and monotonous book The Big Wheel was published, contributed his talents to only a handful of songs was often missed in contemporary reviews. Predictably enough, Warner Bros. — always on the cutting edge of inventive marketing — hyped the album as the triumphant return of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Whether this approach helped or hindered the album's reception is debatable.
The album is roughly split between up-tempo songs that mostly adhere to the Attractions playbook and slower tunes that emphasize melody and sparse instrumentation over that band's carnival racket; Costello's somewhat-wussy balladeer side would eventually be more fully realized on next album All This Useless Beauty. Like many other Costello albums, a parade of hypocrites, shysters, liars, cheaters, fools, criminals, shady men and slutty women makes up the cast of these songs. Several songs focus on domestic matters: humorous opening track "Pony Street" finds a daughter "reading Das Kapital" and watching videos of her cross-dressing father while trying to curb her mother's increasingly bizarre behavior, "You Tripped At Every Step" promises an unseemly marital squabble, and "Rocking Horse Road" evokes suburban boredom and regret, with its protagonist looking backwards at least one relationship he badly botched. Closing track "Favourite Hour" is perhaps the album's standout moment. Described by Costello as being about "the terrible anticipation of a dread event" in the liner notes to the Rhino reissue version, it features him playing the piano and contains one of the musician's best and most understated melodies.
Other songs drip with the venom, spite and disgust that Costello is best known for, even though this depiction is by now largely inaccurate. We can all thank a questionable dalliance with Burt Bacharach for that. "All the Rage" includes a wonderful rolling piano and boasts a litany of insults, especially in the terse request to "spare me the drone of your advice." "Just About Glad" sounds like a harder-edged companion piece to this song, with Costello taunting the song's subject with a snotty question of "Is that a tear in your eye?" Similar verbal jabs are thrown at the woman "discovered wearing last night's dress" in "Sulky Girl," which contains a tight arrangement and some of Pete Thomas' best drumming on the record. There's no concern or sympathy to be found here; with her dyed hair and phony name, she's primarily shown as an object of derision. Other songs are more sordid. "13 Steps Lead Down" is rather ragged and mines the familiar theme of temptation — in this case the dual vices of sex and alcohol — that appears throughout Costello's catalog. With their procession of drunkards and delinquents, killers and phony alibis, a palpable sense of disgust and anger runs through the frenetic "20% Amnesia" and "Kinder Murder."
Like most artists who have received a significant amount of critical plaudits and pans over the course of a lengthy career, Elvis Costello's later work is frequently judged against his classic early albums like My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Get Happy!!. Still, such an approach sells Brutal Youth far short. While it doesn't stack up to those early albums, it has aged very well and incorporates the best elements of Costello's music — an uneasy balance between harmony and abrasiveness, lyrics that stick like knives, and a sense of humor that can be equally cruel and comforting.