ROCK / It's official: Elvis lives

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The Independent Culture
IN THE LAST fortnight television has offered two profiles of Elvis Costello. First, BBC2's broadcast of his MTV Unplugged from 1991 showed a bulbous Costello with a Grateful Dead beard and a set-list that, back then, was starting to polarise long-term fans. But last week's Top of the Pops had him cleanshaven, back to fighting weight and - even when miming - needing full use of the scratchplate on his guitar.

It's not just a tonsorial transformation. The new album Brutal Youth (Warner Bros) is Costello at his splenetic best. Reunited with his beefy sidekicks the Attractions for the first time since 1986, his songs sneer and bully with much of the frustration of his early twenties. And the sounds - angry guitar, swooping bass, New Wave organ, piano trills - revisit late-Seventies albums such as This Year's Model and Armed Forces. This isn't just reassuring, it's thrilling. Wading through the tourist-hostile landscapes of 1989's Spike and 1991's Mighty Like a Rose, it was getting increasingly difficult to locate tunes; not so here. They're piled up like tins of beans in a supermarket. 'Pony St', the opener, has about six.

But what a caustic worldview] 'This is hell, I am sorry to tell you / it never gets better or worse,' he sings, curling his lip, on the immaculate 'This is Hell'. A few songs later, on 'London's Brilliant Parade', he's scarcely lightened up: 'Just look at me, I'm having the time of my life . . .'

Brutal Youth is not what you'd call nostalgic. The photos of the infant Costello playing cowboys and Indians are very sweet, but the 15 songs are full of doubt and recrimination. Last year Costello notoriously penned an entire album in a day for Transvision Vamp's singer Wendy James, an album about being young, cocky and vapid in London. Brutal Youth is about youth and London too, except that this London is curdled with disgust and unease.

It's marvellous to be able to argue again about which is the best song on a Costello album. Is it the mellifluous 'You Tripped at Every Step', or one of the superb ballads? No, it's 'Kinder Murder', an instant classic. This putdown of a 'stonewashed damsel on a junkfood run' leaks ink by the couplet and the Attractions extract every last spark from the music. A great record.