Wisconsin State Journal, March 20, 1994

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Costello's 'Brutal Youth' disc anything but brutal

John Kovalic

Elvis Costello / Brutal Youth
3½ star reviews3½ star reviews3½ star reviews3½ star reviews

Well, here it is.

Elvis Costello's semiannual album, and critics' semiannual chance to croak "Crikey! What a return to form!"

Whether Brutal Youth truly does represent a return to form depends on whatever "form" you think Costello should return to.

Is it the angry young man of 1977's My Aim Is True and 1978's This Year's Model? How about the '60s pseudo-soul rebel of 1980's Get Happy?

Then there's the quirky pop trickster of Armed Forces (1979) and Trust (1981). Have we mentioned the subtle, seasoned master of 1982's Imperial Bedroom?

Or the eclectic veteran of King of America (1986)? And we've yet to mention the severely underrated Blood & Chocolate (also 1986), perhaps Costello's most brilliant post-'70s work.

One thing's for sure: Few people want to see Costello return to his Brodsky Quartet form, especially on the heels of the 2½ Years Rykodisc boxed set that puts the bespectacled one's first three albums in perspective.

More recently, neither Spike (1989) nor Mighty Like A Rose (1991) seem to have the staying power of Costello's pre-Blood & Chocolate catalog, including Punch the Clock (1983) and Goodbye Cruel World (1984).

So, despite some severely brilliant moments ("Coal-Train Robberies," etc), we wouldn't want to follow their fashions.

What Brutal Youth does do is return Costello to the Attractions (Pete Thomas, drums; Steve Nieve, organ and piano; Bruce Thomas, bass; and Nick Lowe, bass). By this point, we should know that the only other thing we can expect from Elvis Costello is the unexpected.

Despite a brilliant beginning (four tremendous songs start off the album: "Pony St.," "Kinder Murder," "13 Steps Lead Down" and "This Is Hell"), it's still too soon to tell whether Brutal Youth will turn out to be a great Costello album.

But what it is at the moment, anyway, is awfully good.

There are a few tracks, true. that just don't come up to snuff.

Songs like "20% Amnesia" and "Clown Strike" are fun, but fall well short of Costello's best.

Still, there's much that pushes close to classic Costello.

The first single from the album, "13 Steps Lead Down," may be Costello's best since "Oliver's Army." It contains the manic energy that characterized much of his earlier material, while also reveling in the lyrical wordplay he refined over the '80s.

If Brutal Youth harks back to any album, it'd probably be the psychotic, ringing, almost tinny (yet completely compelling) sound of Trust.

Songs such as "13 Steps Lead Down," "Pony St." and "This Is Hell" have the riffs and wit to be ranked with past masters like "Clubland," "Big Sister's Clothes" and "Fish 'N' Chip Paper."

Other Brutal tracks, like the anything-BUT-brutal "You Tripped at Every Step," reveal a subtlety that doesn't clash with the album's wilder moments.

Indeed, the problem with Spike and Mighty Like A Rose was the very contrast each album contained. They sounded more like Costello's B-sides collections (Taking Liberties and Out of Our Idiot) than studio albums.

But what may make Brutal Youth a record to be reckoned with is the very flow that links its 15 cuts.

At every listening, the album also seems to grow stronger and more captivating — a quality never much in evidence on Spike or Rose.

Take "London's Brilliant Parade," following after the silky swirl of "Sulky Girl." The piece is a superb tour of Costello's London, a startling landscape of places we've never been (in Costello's songwriting, anyway).

Unfortunately, its lyrical brilliance is shattered by "My Science Fiction Twin," the throwaway following song.

Still, tracks like "Rocking Horse Road" and "Just About Glad," though initially forgettable, become addictive on the fourth or fifth take. Again harking to the past, this is exactly how Trust played out.

While only five of the 15 cuts feature all three Attractions (Bruce Thomas is, apparently, still not fully reunited with the King after an ugly '80s parting), Nick Lowe keeps the sound consistent for his stints on bass.

Tellingly, though, of the Thomas cuts ("13 Steps," "This is Hell," "You Tripped at Every Step," "Sulky Girl" and "Brilliant Parade"), not one is anything less than stellar. That the Attractions are gearing up for the next Costello tour is good news indeed.

I've been playing Brutal Youth nonstop since it arrived last week. I want to listen to it for a month or two more before making up my mind on its staying power.

But, yes, it could be a great Elvis Costello album. It's a sight better than anything since Blood & Chocolate, at any rate.

And, in Costello's words, that should make us "just about glad."

Tags: Brutal YouthMy Aim Is TrueThis Year's ModelGet Happy!!Armed ForcesTrustImperial BedroomKing Of AmericaBlood & ChocolateThe Brodsky Quartet2½ YearsRykodiscSpikeMighty Like A RosePunch The ClockGoodbye Cruel WorldCoal-Train RobberiesThe AttractionsPete ThomasSteve NieveBruce ThomasNick LowePony St.Kinder Murder13 Steps Lead DownThis Is Hell20% AmnesiaClown Strike13 Steps Lead DownOliver's ArmyClublandBig Sister's ClothesFish 'N' Chip PaperYou Tripped At Every StepTaking LibertiesLondon's Brilliant ParadeSulky GirlMy Science Fiction TwinRocking Horse RoadJust About Glad1994 US Tour

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Wisconsin State Journal, March 20, 1994

John Kovalic reviews Brutal Youth.


1994-03-20 Wisconsin State Journal page 7F clipping 01.jpg

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1994-03-20 Wisconsin State Journal page 7F.jpg


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