In 1994, Elvis Costello reentered the building with his most electric album since Blood & Chocolate
With the release of 1994’s Brutal Youth, Elvis Costello was back in fighting form. More than a decade had passed since his string of seminal efforts — My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces and Get Happy!, the albums that had established his reputation as an angry young insurgent borne from the throes of England’s prodigious pub/punk movement.
Back then he had revealed himself as a nihilistic nerd clearly capable of imbuing his anthems with catchy hooks, irresistible refrains and all the other tidings needed to broach the boundaries of mainstream acceptance. In many ways, Costello’s return to that early template could be credited to the fact that the Attractions were back in the fold for the first time since Blood & Chocolate, a span of eight long years. Indeed, Elvis’ decision to reconnect with his original backing band after having recruited session players to do his bidding appeared to make a marked difference both in attitude and aptitude.
The reunion paid off in other ways as well. Brutal Youth returned Costello to the top reaches of the U.K. charts for the first time in almost a decade and a half, hitting his highest mark since Get Happy!! entered Britain’s Top 5 in 1980.
Notably too, Brutal Youth was a decided return to form as far as his signature sound was concerned. Costello’s previous album, The Juliet Letters, found him engaged in an unlikely collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, a pairing that was critically acclaimed but hardly what might have been expected from an otherwise irascible artist. The album that would follow Brutal Youth was Kojak Variety, a set of songs consisting entirely of covers. It belied the fact that Costello was still writing prodigiously, although most of his efforts were directed at other artists, chief among them Wendy James, who devoted an entire album, Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears, to Costello compositions. Knowing that he was nearing the end of his contractual obligations to Warner Bros., he turned his final album for the label — the tellingly titled All This Useless Beauty — into a collection of songs he had previously written for other artists.
That in effect makes Brutal Youth Costello’s last great solo album of the ‘90s. (That doesn’t include Painted From Memory which was released later that decade but crafted alongside Burt Bacharach.) Indeed, on sings such as “Pony St.,” “20% Amnesia” and “13 Steps Lead Down” he recaptures the drive and defiance of his earliest outings, while songs such as “this Is Hell” and “You Tripped At Every Step” and “London’s Brilliant Parade” substitute sentiment for the cynicism and sneer that’s always typified his particular persona. “Clown Step” and “My Science Fiction Twin” add elements of R&B, always one of Costello’s preferred precepts, while “Still Too Soon To Know” reveals him as the closeted romantic that he sometimes secretly aspired to, even early on.
Granted, the album doesn’t have the abundance of signature songs that Elvis crafted to get him out of the starting gate. But still, taken in tandem, Brutal Youth is as tough and tenacious as its title implies. A quarter of a century after its initial unveiling, it remains as urgent and incisive as ever.