Elvis Costello's songs don't exactly lend themselves to cover versions. For all their tuneful ingenuity, they're too bound up in his private obsessions: strewn with obscure references, elliptical language, and a finely honed sense of life as a social disease. So instead of a Sinatra-Bono "Shot With His Own Gun," or at the very least a Marianne Faithfull "Tramp the Dirt Down," we usually get stuck with some misguided embarrassment like Linda Ronstadt's infamous "Alison."
Or else the four Costello covers performed by Tasmin Archer on her Shipbuilding EP. She projects a pleasant but faceless quality— a voice that's strong, eager-to-please, and unmarked by any suggestion of personal experience. Singing a line such as "Though I look right at home. I still feel like an exile," she just doesn't have a clue. Her cocktail-rock version of "Shipbuilding" is pretty and evasive, milking the melody while neatly sidestepping the song's implications (how militarism corrupts whole communities, for instance). Archer hasn't got the timing to carry off the tongue-twisting "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," but her simple piano-and-voice "All Grown Up" actually improves on the dismal original. Shipbuilding is padded out with live versions of her own material, which suggests Stevie Nicks on Prozac: "Lords of the New Church," a fantasy about (I'm guessing here) Jesus and/or Stiv Bators, shows major space-cadet potential.
As for Elvis Costello himself, he's back with 15 fresh slices of warmed-over genius on Brutal Youth. He's dumped the string section and reassembled the Attractions (plus guest Nick Lowe) for old time's sake, but you get the feeling he could have made this record in his sleep (and probably did). There's plenty of art here—tricky arrangements, extended metaphors, Brechtian wiles—but hardly any action. Numbers like "You Tripped at Every Step" and "20% Amnesia" could be exhibits in a fetish museum, where alienation and loss are kept in display cases, and you can buy "Give Me Strength or Give Me Mercy" T-shirts in the gift shop on your way out.
Costello doesn't say anything on Brutal Youth he hasn't said better, and often, before. He's always good for a taut, twist-the-stiletto routine like "Kinder Murder" or a bit of bitter-sweet candy a la "London's Brilliant Parade," but there's boredom in the air and all the usual suspects in the police lineup. Maybe that's why this album finds him rummaging through his record collection, copping the Zombies' most famous hook for the background of "Sulky Girl" and perversely rewriting the Orioles' sublime "It's Too Soon to Know" (replacing the "It's" with "Still" and adding about a ton of self-consciousness). He even pays a visit to "Pony St.," which XTC called "Respectable Street" and before that was the Kinks' "Dead End Street." There he shouts to no one in particular, "Reading Das Kapital / Watching Home Shopping Club / While you're flogging a dead horse." There's a lot of that going around these days.