It is said that the Punk movement of 1976/77 took all the conventions of music and violently turned them on their head, reshaping not only musical styles but also a great part of popular culture: comedy, the visual arts and literature all felt its impact. Aside from perhaps The Sex Pistols and The Clash, the punks are now largely forgotten and it is those artists whom they influenced that are more readily identifiable as the ones who drew upon Punk's ideal and made records that would define the sound of popular music for the late 1970s and much of the 1980s: artists such as Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, The Jam, The Police and Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
The records made by these post-Punk artists took Punk's minimalist approach to instrumentation and married to it a lyrical style of sharply contrasting intensity and complexity. Whereas the punks had been screaming "No future! No future!," the lyrics featured on these new records were becoming a form of urban poetry, often combining pop's traditional "catchiness" with perverse imagery and cutting cynicism.
Few bands characterise this new musical approach in the way that Elvis Costello and his band, The Attractions, do. Not as overtly commercial as many of the later New Wave hands, Elvis Costello and The Attractions retained something of Punk's harder edge with short sharp songs (generally under three minutes, some closer to two) that featured lyrics like "They beat him up until the teardrops start / But he can't be wounded 'cause he's got no heart" ("Watching The Detectives"). Beginning with the brilliant My Aim Is True, Costello and the Attractions released album after album of superbly crafted songs, including Armed Forces, This Year's Model and Get Happy!!. Costello released his last album with the Attractions, Blood & Chocolate, in 1986.
Costello's post-Attractions career has suffered somewhat from mixed commercial and critical success: beginning with the release of The King Of America, Costello has experimented with a variety of increasingly diverse musical approaches, which culminated with last year's The Juliet Letters, a collaboration between Costello and The Brodsky Quartet (the album featured only Costello's vocals with string accompaniment).
Now Elvis Costello returns with a new album and with The Attractions (even though they are not billed as such). Costello's decision to work once again with The Attractions, and the resulting album that they have recorded (with original producer Nick Lowe playing bass on seven of the album's tracks), can be likened to the hack-to-basics approach taken by The Beatles in recording Abbey Road after the meandering and divisive White Album and Let it Be sessions. The new album, Brutal Youth, recalls the vitality and sparsity of the early Attractions albums, yet is clearly the creation of a mature songwriter and not simply a rehash of a proven formula.
At times listening to Brutal Youth, one forgets that more than fifteen years have passed since "Alison," 'Oliver's Army" and "Pump It Up" were singles: just as those songs are timely, so too are the fifteen tracks on this album. The opening cut "Pony St." has all the urgency of "High Fidelity" with its driving bass and heavily syncopated and frenetic drumming. With songs like "You Tripped At Every Step," Costello once again displays the stylistic diversity that has continued to set him apart from other performers. Set against "Pony St.," "20% Amnesia" and the single "13 Steps Lead Down," which rock along in a fairly traditional fashion, "You Tripped At Every Step" is notable for the eloquence of its arrangement: it is the music itself and the vocal harmonies, as much as the lyrics, which convey the powerful emotional picture of the piece.
In many ways Brutal Youth is vintage Elvis Costello: however, that is not to say that it is a step backwards. The fact that Costello has chosen to revisit the musical territory upon which much of his substantial reputation rests in no way discredits or dismisses his recent work: after The Juliet Letters, Brutal Youth is probably the most logical step to take. The album owes its brilliance less to the return of The Attractions, than to the emotional responses it elicits. Costello's work defies the pop music tradition of making records that result in nothing but mindless joy. With Brutal Youth, Elvis Costello truly created music to listen to.