Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Elvis Costello 17: Brutal Youth

1994 was a very busy year for Elvis. Along with the new and rare tracks added to reissues of his older albums and contributions to just about every “tribute” album released that year, there was a new album to tour behind. This was an especially big deal, because while Brutal Youth didn’t have them on every track, the tour featured the long-awaited reunion of the Attractions. Even the album’s red and black-and-white color scheme—plus the occasional appearance of old pal Nick Lowe—suggested we were picking up where Blood & Chocolate left off.
That would have been nice, but as could be expected from an eight-year absence, the results were slightly more tentative. It was originally intended as a noisy album, but as the sessions developed and progressed, the songs were given more space. However, that space is framed by the murky, noisy production by occasional collaborator Mitchell Froom, who tends to treat bass as an underwater effect and percussion as the sound of drums being thrown down a flight of stairs. If you can get past that, the songs hold up, for the most part.
“Pony St.” begins with a raindrop piano line for a strong opener, followed by the stark attack of “Kinder Murder”. “This Is Hell” extends the sci-fi/absurdist commentary of his last album, while the piano-and-vocal “Favourite Hour” reflects his baroque education. “20% Amnesia” is another angry attack on British politics; a more affectionate view of home appears in “London’s Brilliant Parade”. Many have lauded “Just About Glad” as being another lyrical classic, but these ears feel he’s trying too hard to be clever, with a delivery bordering on smug. That said, “Rocking Horse Road” is a fresh take on the usual chord changes, and “All The Rage” is an incredibly satisfying riposte to critics.
The fans liked the album, but it didn’t break any sales records, despite a world tour and several TV appearances. Critics were more excited about seeing the Attractions onstage again, but a growing rift between the Singer and The Bass Player probably had a lot to with the selection of bonus tracks on the reissue, which consisted of a few demos and B-sides that illustrate the development of the project from cacophonous experiments to their final draft. These tracks—particularly a full band take on “Favourite Hour” and a breathtaking early version of “You Tripped At Every Step”—help you appreciate the songs underneath the clutter.

Elvis Costello Brutal Youth (1994)—
2002 Rhino: same as 1994, plus 15 extra tracks

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