Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Brutal Youth

This is the first Elvis Costello album I bought. I had been hearing a lot about the British singer but never much of his music. I knew the Saturday Night Live story, which I thought was awesome. I knew that I loved " Radio, Radio." I knew he was big among Rock critics and that he was known for songs about romantic failures. So I went into the local independent record store, the now defunct CD Warehouse, and looked for his name among the used CD titles only to find Brutal Youth. Like many influential albums in one's life, I picked it up after being dumped.

She told me she would be seeing somebody else on graduation night. The joy of leaving high school and knowing that your whole life is ahead of you turned into the bitterness of being rejected and the despair of seeing your hopes of being loved break into pieces. I was angry for the rest of the night, slept for two hours, called her the next morning and then drove to the record store.

I had never heard of this album and had no idea what to expect. I didn't know that it would feature the reunion of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in five of its songs, recording together for the first time in eight years. I didn't know that it was coming off the artier diversions into classical music and orchestral pop songs in The Juliet Letters and Mighty Like A Rose. I didn't know that many of the songs in this album would have little to do with love. After listening to it, I thought they all did and I liked it that way.

Costello's 15th album starts with a three-punch succession of excellent Rock songs. "Pony St.," "Kinder Murder," and "13 Steps Lead Down" are all guitar driven tunes that hark back to some of Costello's earliest albums. In my post-break up state, I saw these as perfect ways to exorcise the feelings I had left for this girl. Leading me to mistake the tragic story in "Kinder Murder" for a validation of being led-on and duped. "13 Steps Lead Down" was just a great song to hear while driving, singing along to drown out the voices of rejection and anger in my head.

Despite "This is Hell" being nothing more than a portrait of Costello's idea of hell, one where "My Favorite Things" is always played by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane, I honestly saw it as a song where someone feels like they are in hell because of how a relationship ended. Projecting my own hangups was easier on the next few songs: "Clown Strike," "You Tripped at Every Step," and "Still Too Soon to Know." These are all great Pop songs and somewhat healing, though the maudlin "Still Too Soon to Know" hit me harder because it's about being betrayed. 

"Just About Glad" and "All the Rage" also provided some musical catharsis in the form of two kiss-off songs. The former is meaner and seems like more of a guttural response. The latter is the better of the two featuring some great word play by Costello and a less strident tune than "Just About Glad." The chorus always made me feel better:

Say "Goodbye"
Baby can't you act your age?
You know why
I'm going to give it to you straight
Although I'll never be unhappy as you want me to be
Still it's all the rage

I'd like to think that these songs got me through the time my heart was broken until it healed up for someone else. Since that time, I've only grown fonder of the album. Finding deeper meanings in some of these songs that at first seemed to only speak to my sad state. Songs like "London's Brilliant Parade," "Rocking Horse Road" are particularly stunning despite having nothing to do with romantic adventures. Nowadays, I find myself picking out the torch song "Favorite Hour" as my favorite song in the album. In the song, Costello expertly details the moment before an execution, a moment that could take the place of any dreaded occurrence in one's life. Despite how important the other songs were to me at a specific time, "Favorite Hour" will remain important to me for the rest of my life.

Classics: 13 Steps Lead Down, Clown Strike, London's Brilliant Parade, Rocking Horse Road, All the Rage, Favorite Hour

Songs I'd like to hear live: 13 Steps Down, Rocking Horse Road, All the Rage, Favorite Hour

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