DAY TWENTY-THREE: BRUTAL YOUTH
Recording The Gwendolyn Letters led Costello to accidentally reunite The Attractions.
It all started when he cut a few rough songs with Pete Thomas on drums and Costello playing everything else. (Pete was the only Attraction who had never left the fold, playing on Spike, Kojak Variety and Mighty Like A Rose.) The original idea was to make an album called Idiophone, which means “an instrument the whole of which vibrates to produce a sound when struck, shaken, or scraped, such as a bell, gong, or rattle.” Costello was going to play most of the instruments himself:
Frustrated by his limitations, Costello brought in Steve Nieve and the three of them completed the song "20% Amnesia." Their old producer Nick Lowe was then asked to play bass; this line-up, informally dubbed “The Distractions” played on almost half the album, including several of Brutal Youth's best songs:
When Lowe decided that a few of the more complicated tracks were beyond his abilities as a bass player, producer Mitchell Froom suggested that it might be worth asking Bruce Thomas. Costello swallowed his pride and made the call, and the old band finished the remainder of the album together.
Despite its herky-jerky origins, Brutal Youth is a surprisingly coherent album, and one of the most agreed-upon Great Albums of the second half of Costello’s career. It has something for everyone: there’s the Attractions reunion aspect for the nostalgists, and the band truly does sound as great as ever. The songs, particularly in the first half, show off Costello’s always-impressive range as a songwriter. He is in full Trust/Spike mode, jumping from one style to another, but it feels effortless.
For those who were impressed with his newfound confidence as a vocalist on The Juliet Letters, Brutal Youth was an exciting next step. This might be his best showcase as a singer— he is emboldened, but still employing a lot of the multi-tracked harmonies and creative backing vocals that, earlier in his career, might have been used to compensate for his limitations. Going forward, he would rely on these techniques less and less frequently, often eschewing them entirely. On Brutal Youth, they serve to supercharge his already-strong vocals.
In addition to all this, there is an element of self-reflection in the latter half of the album that was perhaps unintended and gives the album an almost confessional element. The personal reminiscence of “London’s Brilliant Parade,” the gentle self-parody of “My Science Fiction Twin” and the speculation about the road not taken on both “Rocking Horse Road” and “Just About Glad.”
"Rocking Horse Road", in particular, is a thing of wonder. It was inspired when Costello went for a walk in New Zealand and found himself lost in the suburbs, causing him to reflect on the life he might have led if things had gone differently for him.
"It really was about how I suppose I might have ended up, quite happily, living like that. Or feeling like I would have been the one trapped in this domestic situation like that, had circumstances been different. Rather than running away— that’s the truth of it, you know. That could have been the life I aspired to when I was a schoolboy; to have a nice house on a nice street. I didn’t want to write ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’— it’s more personal than that. This is one way it could have gone for me and then it didn’t."
The final 60 seconds of the song are pure magic. The way that Costello’s guitar seems to meld with Steve Nieve’s keyboard playing is otherworldly, reminiscent of the kind of musical bond they had back in the days of Get Happy!! and Trust.
Costello took "Poisoned Letter"' and basically split it into two new songs, using the music for one and the lyrics for another.While the earlier song was like a sledge hammer, "My Science Fiction Twin" is funny and "All The Rage" manages to deliver the same insults a lot more effectively by not shouting them. Despite the occasional pettiness of the lyric, there is a valedictory tone to it, Costello waving goodbye and good riddance to those who would continue to see him as the “Bug-eyed Revenge & Guilt Monster” of 1978.
There was much fun to be had in 1994. Costello began his first tour with The Attractions since 1986, and they were in fine form. Though Costello’s so-called “Beard Years” had actually been remarkably brief, there were many who were relieved at the return of the Costello they remembered from Blood & Chocolate.
Late Show with David Letterman:
Amid all the excitement of the Attractions reunion, it was easy to overlook that Brutal Youth's closing track sounded more like The Juliet Letters than This Year’s Model.
Anyone who thought that Costello had left behind the experimentation of the past few years wasn’t really listening, and they were in for a rude awakening.
TOMORROW: COSTELLO HAS A MELTDOWN IN LONDON
This is the first real Elvis Costello album I bought on CD and I listened to it all through the summer I built a fence in the back yard of my family’s house in Maryland after my brother bought a dog.
I had heard about Costello from a cool camp counselor named Matt who loaned some albums to my friend Peter. At the end of that summer, I bought a greatest hits CD and also found an old used cassette of My Aim Is True at a flea market in Boston, but by that point I hardly listened to tapes any more.
I tuned in to see Costello play “13 Steps Lead Down” on Letterman and got Brutal Youth through Columbia House.
The 40 Days of Elvis Costello project has finally caught up to when I got on board!