USC Daily Trojan, April 18, 1994

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Costello appears in decline,
squeezes in a last-effort album

Andrew Asch

Brutal Youth has day-old appeal, rehashing the past

There is no reason to buy Elvis Costello's Greatest Hits. Brutal Youth is the tepid, familiar medley that K-Tel should have sold long ago.

Brutal Youth is not a bad album per se. In fact, for those who have never heard England's angriest young man, this album would be a good buy. Yet longtime fans will be hard-pressed not to pick out riffs from his past songs here. This self-sampling makes the disc more a trip down memory lane than a compelling listen.

Costello's reunion with his old hand, the Attractions, must be the reason why he churned out this medley. Considering some of his truly rotten solo efforts, the reunion was a good and bad move for Costello. Working with the Attractions gave Costello the backbone that makes this album the best since 1986 Blood and Chocolate, yet the old scene must have also fenced him into his old bilious playground.

Instead of treading any new ground with the Attractions, Costello follows the chops that brought him success in 1977. In fact, "13 Steps" exactly follows the same song structure as his first hit, "Radio Sweetheart."

It has a tense, brooding lead that erupts into a poppy song with the grim, witty lyrics that have made Costello such a nasty pleasure. It's an excellent formula, but you have to wonder why he hasn't used it in 17 years.

Likewise, the band is up to its old tricks. Bassist Bruce Thomas' signature bass lines surface on songs like "Pony St." Yet they're only a dim reminder of how brilliantly and furiously he used the same lines on This Year's Model. Steve Nieve's dreamy, somewhat subversive organ can be heard on a "A Kinder Murder," although the best expression of the same organ work was on the old singles Get Happy and Taking Liberties.

Costello does break a little new ground on this disc. On the title track, he works much better with what has been his weakest card, compassionate songs. The man famous for writing songs about revenge and guilt has usually been an embarrassment when he's tried to show that he has feelings too. His failed albums Almost Blue and Punch the Clock are testimonies to his misplaced emotions.

Yet it looks like age may have made him deal better with softer emotions, because the compassionate songs on Brutal Youth are pleasant, not laughable.

Age must be making old man Costello nostalgic, too. "Rocking Horse Road" is something he could never have thought about even a few years ago. It's so nostalgic that it could be the missing song from The Big Chill soundtrack.

"Rocking Horse Road" sounds like Big Brother and the Holding Company doing their most sentimental cover of a Dylan tune. Janis Joplin would have done much better work on it, yet Costello manages to pull it off.

He also shows that he can rant with almost the same vigor that he did in the late '70s and early '80s. "20% Amnesia" could hold up with any other of Costello's witty, loud screeds against the world. It's too bad the rest of this album doesn't compare with his best work. Then again, it could be worse, much worse.

Elvis Costello could have sunk to the dreary depths of Pete Townshend or Mick Jagger's solo careers. Worse yet, he could have become as egomaniacal and boring as his contemporaries Billy Idol and John Lydon, still flogging the long-dead punk-rock horse almost 18 years after the punk revolution.

Brutal Youth proves that Costello has narrowly avoided rock's merciless Logan's Run Law, that those past 30 must die or be tossed into show business' worst purgatories. Costello promised he would avoid this fate by retiring before his artistic decline. Although this promise may be cataloged under "long-avoided-New Year's Resolutions," he still may have a few years to go.


The Daily Trojan, April 18, 1994

Andrew Asch reviews Brutal Youth.


1994-04-18 USC Daily Trojan page 11 clipping 01.jpg

1994-04-18 USC Daily Trojan page 11.jpg
Page scan.


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