Full-page ads in other newspapers inform me that the Bombast Bands of the 1970s (does Pink Floyd ring a bell?) are coming back to the stadiums this summer, Some 17 years after punk and new wave made these people irrelevant, the only question that makes sense here is what zombification toxin must be in the water to make these dead walk and make others listen to them.
The rock 'n' roll question the bombast bands couldn't answer in 1977 was what proportions of technique and passion add up to believable rock 'n' roll. Nobody asked that question as eloquently and angrily as Elvis Costello. Never quite a punk rocker, but as drunk on wrath as any punk, Costello also had the pop-classicist roots and writerly technique that few punks could muster; unlike almost all of his contemporaries, he's lasted. In fact, he's lasted long enough that some people have started asking the same question of him. Those of us who study the guy's work like it was the Talmud have a ready answer, but it's still a fair question. When your last few records featured New Orleans horn sections, Knitting Factory-ish noise-jazz guitarists, and string quartets, do you still remember how to make the explosive hard-pop noise that made you Elvis Costello?
On his new album Brutal Youth (Warner Bros.), Costello rediscovers what it's like to work with overt crudeness, This wasn't so much a deliberate theoretical plan as the natural result of some loose, spontaneous methods. The album grew out of some quick 8-track demos he and drummer Pete Thomas, the one Attraction he's kept working with all along. The project's rough, experimental sound seemed to call for old familiar collaborators, and one by one the original Attractions reconvened. The old chemistry came back easily: Steve Nieve's elegantly wacky keyboard work and Pete Thomas' deceptive sense of momentum are still the ideal foils for the convoluted logic of Costello's songwriting. Nick Lowe plays bass on about half the record, but when he found some of the arrangements beyond him technically, Costello buried the hatchet with bass virtuoso Bruce Thomas, and the Attractions were back on track. This album and the upcoming tour are no nostalgia trip: some of the production ideas are as raw as punk rock, but the ideas (sonically and conceptually) are fresh.
Mining his anger is one thing Costello does better than anybody. The difference between the young Costello and the mature one seems to be that he now knows more directions to turn once his anger's depleted. The venomous songs here ("All the Rage," "Kinder Murder," "20% Amnesia") take no prisoners, just like the old stuff; this is still somebody you don't want mad at you.
Costello still likes to balance his point of view between disgust and amusement, but his emotional range can't be measured on a two-point continuum. Forgiveness, or something quite like it, is a large component of this record. It's there in the undramatic, manful way he patched things up with Bruce Thomas; it's there in the acerbic yet ultimately sympathetic portrait of a troubled siren in "Sulky Girl," and in the comic perspective games between an ex-hippie mother and her Generation X daughter in "Pony St." The cityscape he describes in "London's Brilliant Parade" is disappointing in some ways and ludicrous in others, but it's still a place he loves.
And clearly, Costello is still a rocker, as the breakneck guitar coda to "13 Steps Lead Down" proves.
I don't know at this date whether Costello and the Attractions plan to play any stadiums when they come through North America this year; stadium-size crowds might not get the point of a lot of this material. I'd bet, though, that the resurgence of his career will be followed over the next few years by a wave by gifted younger performers who work in frank emulation of him, The best measure of Costello's stature may turn out to be his influence on the whole profession. With Brutal Youth, he's advanced the state of the art of rock 'n' roll,