Brutal Youth (Warner Bros.)

Elvis Costello

By Mark Clark

I may be the only Evils Costello fan on the planet who was leery of the singer/songwriter's reunion with The Attractions.

Costello had recorded three of his riskiest and richest albums (King of America, Spike and Mighty Like a Rose) without his famed backup band. Yet, some hardcore fans never warmed up to those records. Then Costello went off the deep end, teaming up with The Brodsky Quartet for the inscrutable Juliet Letters. And in the wake of that fiasco he shelved his next project, an album of covers.

To me, it looked like Costello was running for cover. By rejoining The Attractions, I feared he was opting for something bankable instead of pushing the envelope. Maybe he was even regressing.

I should have known better.

Yes, The Attractions (drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas and keyboardist Steve "Naive" Nason) are back. Old friend Nick Lowe is on hand too, playing bass on seven of Brutal Youth's 15 tracks. And yes, there are cuts here that hark back to Costello's salad days — notably, "20% Amnesia" and the album's infectious single, "13 Steps Lead Down." But anyone who's expecting Armed Forces Redux will be disappointed. Brutal Youth has more to do with Costello's last four records than his first four. This is an album short on straight-ahead rockers and long on dark, brooding ballads.

Still, cynical numbers like "Just About Glad" and "Kinder Murder" (which would have fit right in on Mighty Like a Rose) prove the kid has lost little of his youthful anger. And softer pieces like "London's Brilliant Parade" and "Rocking Horse Road" flow from Costello's apparently bottomless wellspring of ear-catching melodies.

Costello's arrangements are his simplest, least ornate in years. His tunes have been stripped down to the basics — guitar, bass and drums, with occasional keyboard textures. That gives Nason and the Thomases plenty of room in which to operate.

I must confess, it's a joy to hear The Attractions again. Over the years, the band has developed such a rapport with each other and an understanding of Costello's material, they sometimes sound like they're reading each other's minds. If any one member stands out, it's Pete Thomas, who shines on cuts like "This Is Hell" and "Sulky Girl," which are hung on nifty percussion rhythms.

Like all the best work in Costello's catalog, listeners can return to Brutal Youth again and again and discover something new with every trip.

Ultimately, the album stands as yet another testament to Costello's nearly unparalleled songwriting prowess. It's sure to rank among the year's finestalbums.