Everybody's talking about the return of Elvis Costello (as if he ever went away). Whether elated over the return of the Attractions as his backing band, or over Costello's return to pop music after last year's collaboration with the chamber music ensemble the Brodsky Quartet, critics and fans seem united in celebrating Brutal Youth, Costello's new album, as a revitalization of a broken-down career.
Let me say without equivocation that Brutal Youth is Costello's finest work since 1986's Blood and Chocolate, that its worthy of consideration with the other high points of his catalog (Get Happy, Imperial Bedroom and King of America) and that it is easily the most impressive album I've heard this year from any recording artist.
But it's just in my contrary nature to argue against the idea that Costello needed to return from the sidetrips he'd been making to other types of music in recent years.
If Spike and Mighty Like a Rose, Costello's last two pop albums, were somewhat inconsistent affairs, they each contained stunning music. Costello experimented with different backing musicians, different types of arrangements and different songwriting styles. The best cuts on each album speak for themselves: "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," "Veronica" and "Pads, Paws and Claws" from Spike and "The Other Side of Summer," "All Grown Up" and "So Like Candy" from Mighty Like a Rose. These and several other songs hold up just fine, showing that Costello's magical gift for vibrant melody and biting lyrics was never lost.
I know it's fashionable to dismiss The Juliet Letters, the collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, but I maintain that some great tunes are hidden in plain view on an album that even ardent Costello fans rarely play. If "I Almost Had a Weakness," "Taking My Life in Your Hands," "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" or "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" had been recorded with rock instrumentation instead of a string quartet, they would have been as beloved as anything in Costello's repertoire. And his singing has never been more expressive or more stylistically varied, or covered more range.
That said, I will admit that all three of Costello's first albums since the split with the Attractions had their flaws. Forgettable songs had been few and far between on the first 13 albums he'd recorded, yet they seemed to be running at a high percentage on these newer ones.
Still, that's a problem with the songwriting process itself, not the arrangements in which they were placed. I'm not going to argue that it doesn't sound great to hear Costello reunited with his old backing band again.
There is no question that Elvis Costello on guitar, Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums have a musical rapport that few groups of musicians have ever achieved. Even though Bruce Thomas actually plays on only five of the 15 songs on Brutal Youth, this is clearly an Attractions album, with trademark sounds calling to mind many of the group's past glories.
Hearing Nieve's cheesy organ chords or his climbing piano lines, Bruce Thomas's perfectly placed, harmonically dense bass lines and Pete Thomas's rhythmic powerhouse drum parts behind Costello's roughest guitar playing and aggressive vocals works in this context in the same way a rap fan might hear samples of earlier funk songs in a new record.
But what makes Brutal Youth a brilliant record is not the reminders of Costello's past, but the melodic magnificence of his present. Fifteen songs, clocking in at less than three minutes shy of an hour, and not a clunker in the bunch, not even a bum note.
Costello is roaring at full speed again, not necessarily by rocking out, which he does on only a few of the cuts here, but by coming up with many of the best, most engaging, most delightful, most surprising melodies of his 17-year career.
There are plenty of great reasons to love Elvis Costello. Some people go crazy over his lyrics, which are consistently among the most dense, clever and complex in pop music. Some people simply love the sounds he and his backing musicians make, the frequent shifts between quiet rage and hard-edged lyricism.
But for me, Costello lives and dies by the strength of his tunes, and the songs on Brutal Youth have, after two weeks, worked their way deep into my psyche. "Kinder Murder," "13 Steps Lead Down," "You Tripped at Every Step," "20 Amnesia," "London's Brilliant Parade," "Just About Glad" heck, why should I try to pick out favorites? Just go out and buy the record. "Brutal Youth" is contemporary pop music at its apex.