If it’s true that Elvis Costello and his wife, Cait O’Riordan, wrote the 10 songs on Wendy James’ last album in one weekend — songs that sounded like outtakes from This Year’s Model — then Brutal Youth‘s 15 tunes, penned by Costello himself, probably came the following week. After a classical foray with the Brodsky Quartet on The Juliet Letters (1993), Costello is back mingling the pop expressionism of Armed Forces (1979) with the failed clutter of Trust (1981), reprising both that period’s trademarks and shortcomings. Recorded with the Attractions (Bruce Thomas alternating with Nick Lowe and Costello on bass) and produced by Mitchell Froom, Brutal Youth is yet another avalanche of wordplay and woodshedding, of lyrics rushing into each other and instruments vying for musical space.
“Kinder Murder,” with an opening chord sequence worthy of Nirvana, recalls the compression of Costello’s early New Wave punch. The signature riff of “Sulky Girl” harkens back to the stripped-down style of My Aim Is True (1977). “Rocking Horse Road” recalls the more expansive soul groove of Get Happy!! (1980). But while Costello’s early records sound like a man defiantly raiding the entire history of rock, pop and soul for hooks, Brutal Youth sounds like he’s raiding his own catalog.
Costello has always had a penchant for cramming too many words into a verse; turning private emotions into political filibusters added just the right paranoiac edge. Brutal Youth does not, however, take place in the era of “revenge and guilt” that gave birth to its sound. As with much of Costello’s recent work, the verbosity and pun mongering now make him sound too clever for his own good. Ditto the arrangements. “Pony St.,” “20% Amnesia” and “London’s Brilliant Parade” all sound like great songs in hiding — everything’s so busy.
In interviews, Elvis Costello has praised the work of Hank Williams for its simplicity, its tight connection to the heart. Costello is capable of making that connection, too. He just needs to tighten up.