Liverpool's fifth favorite son, Elvis Costello has managed to survive far past the late '70s rebel resurrection from which his career spawned. As one of rock's best songwriters and worst singers, his modest cult following has created a steady demand for recordings which has seen a Dylanesque tapering off of quality in later recordings.
'Brutal Youth," Costello's most recent Warner Brothers release, finds the raspy crooner returning to his roots with the re-addition of The Attractions and a cameo appearance by former producer Nick Lowe. Taking a hint from the failures of his highly orchestrated past few efforts, he seems to have realized that what he does beet is also what his fans want to hear from him: unadulterated rock 'n' roll.
As an album, Youth works well as a much-needed revitalization in Costello's discography. Although nowhere near the quality of such earlier works as This Year's Model and Armed Forces, it's definitely the best thing he's done since the McCartney collaborations on 1989's Spike.
Reunited with the old band, Costello's knack for being simultaneously audience-cautious and self-pleasing once again emerges. When he rips into "Kinder Murder" after the first track, he sets a bouncy tone which fortunately remains intact throughout the rest of the disc. When he sings the title verse with such convincing emotion, we remember that Costello has never been one to take songwriting lightly.
The solid ballad "This is Hell," a country-Western song in spirit, shows Costello as the storyteller he was meant to be. His musical ranges are taken to every extreme within a few stanzas, resulting in a comprehensive, swooning melody.
In some instances, however, he does fall flat on his shifty face when he makes the same mistakes he made on most of his mid-80s albums. "Still Too Soon To Know" contains vocal pitches far from Costello's reach, a mistake that fellow non-singers Tom Petty and Bob Dylan know better than to commit. Until the quick stimuli of "20% Amnesia," the listener may wonder if Costello has learned anything in his 17 year career.
Nevertheless, Brutal Youth contains about 90 percent high-quality music. True, some of its best tracks may be for Costello fans only, and the prospects of any of these numbers climbing the charts is very dim.
But, as the second to last track "All The Rage" proves, Elvis Costello will never bend to top 40 demands and as long as he's capable, hell never stop making records. His career may very well stretch far into the next century.
In fact, I'm willing to bet that the legend of Costello will outlast that of another, undead Elvis who haunts us.