"So you're flogging a dead horse, all the way down Pony Street." — "Pony St."
"This is all your glorious country thinks of your life, strip jack naked with a stanley knife." — "20% Amnesia"
This is the kind of wordplay that drove nasal-voiced, Buddy Holly look-alike Elvis Costello beyond his punk rockin' peers 15 years ago, and it's the spark that still sets an Elvis Costello three-chord rock song apart from anyone elses.
But while his barbed tongue has always been in evidence, over the past few years Costello has used more studio gloss and tricks to augment his writing on albums like Spike and Mighty Like a Rose (not to mention his little adventure The Juliet Letters with The Brodsky Quartet last year). The polish at the same time sacrificed the raw energy that best showcases his lyrical wit.
The idea for Brutal Youth was born when Costello was laying down rough demos of songs written for Wendy James' solo album (released last year). At the studio where he'd one his early records, he rediscovered the "sound" that made him and the Attractions famous in the early '80s.
Rounding up his old bandmates Nick Lowe, Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve, Costello returned to that old studio and cut Brutal Youth, an album that evokes both nostalgia for that vibrant early '80s new wave sound and excitement. This is the kind of basic rock 'n' roll that nods heads, stomps feet and sets lighters blazing. Guitar, bass, drums, dashes of circus-like organ or piano — and Costello's trademark pipes. That's all he uses, and it's all he needs.
Brutal Youth leads off with its best tracks: "Pony St.," "Kinder Murder" and the single "13 Steps Lead Down" all sound like vintage Costello and the Attractions.
The pace lays off for the quieter "This Is Hell" and the Van Morrison-ish "Clown Strike" (the latter of which includes a wonky little bass riff). And "You Tripped at Every Step" stands up alongside great Costello introspections as "Everyday I Write the Book" and "The Only Flame in Town" with a gently leading bass, lounge piano and call repeat vocal backups.
"Sulky Girl" and "London's Brilliant Parade" are average Costello ballads with occasionally playful arrangements (some of the keyboards in "London's" sound like Steve Nieve is fooling around instead of recording an album).
"20% Amnesia" turns up halfway through the CD and stands as one of Costello's best pieces of work in the last decade, a whirling trashy attack of off-kilter drums and slaloming bass are tapped off by an angry yelling vocal that's so loose you can hear Costello laugh in the middle. I couldn't tell you what the chorus is about — "Give me strength or give me mercy / don't let me lose heart / from rage to anesthesia / 20% amnesia" — but it's a rave of a song.
"My Science Fiction Twin" goes on a bit long for its substance at four minutes, but it does boast a hooky bassline and an organ bit that sounds like something out of "The Other Side of Summer."
Sometimes primitive, sometimes slick and affecting, Brutal Youth rarely is boring. This is the album fans have been waiting almost a decade for Costello to write.