Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1981

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Elvis Costello: a New Wave Dylan?

Elvis Costello takes his pop music role seriously

Geoffrey Himes

College Park — The title of Elvis Costello and the Attractions' new album is Trust. The cover photo shows Mr. Costello peering over his orange-tinted sunglasses. His eyebrows are cocked skeptically. It's clear that Trust is the album's subject, not its message.

At the University of Maryland's Ritchie Coliseum in College Park, Elvis Costello wore the same sunglasses for a recent concert. Between songs he cocked his eyebrows in the same skeptical manner. When he sang, though, he bore down with a sense of mission this writer hasn't encountered since Bob Dylan at his peak.

"Clown time is over," Mr. Costello sang with trembling rage. "Time to take over while others just talk and talk." His bristling intensity made it clear that he had no patience for the bozo fantasies of most pop songs.

Elvis Costello is ready to take over if given the chance. In less than five years he has written and recorded 84 songs. Some of them have been covered by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, George Jones, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds. He's widely regarded as the best lyricist in rock and roll at the moment.

In many ways Elvis Costello now occupies the position Bob Dylan held in the Sixties. Just as Mr. Dylan was never as popular as the Beatles. Mr. Costello will never be as popular as Bruce Springsteen. Yet Mr. Dylan forced critics, fans and musicians to take a brand new approach to rock and roll. Mr. Costello is having the same effect.

Mr. Dylan attacked social injustice and cultural rigidity in his songs. Mr. Costello has turned his aim on pop music itself and the fantasies it produces about love.

He sees the pop notion of "love" as an instrument of social repression. His songs report on the "war between the sexes" with the grim battlefield realism of a George Orwell. Mr. Costello sees men and women as duped pawns who repress each other and thus spare the powers that be the trouble.

These pawns only spar if they believe in unreal notions of romance. It's those notions that Mr. Costello wants so bitterly to expose and purge. He writes of his own personal wounds at the hands of romance. He seethes with promises of revenge.

Mr. Costello has been relentless in pursuing this theme. Some people feel he repeats himself too much as a result, Yet the theme is so crucial to pop culture and it is so guarded against that it requires repeated assault. Mr. Costello has constantly sharpened his point as if trying to pierce our defenses against them.

He has never been sharper than on Trust (Columbia JC 37051). He dares us: "Will you look what love has done?" His 1979 Armed Forces was unified by the Phil Spector sound; last year's Get Happy! was held together by the Booker T & the MGs sound. Trust, by contrast, is a dazzling array of styles. Each one is just the right vehicle for the lyrics.

If his anger at the pop industry costs Mr. Costello commercial success — and it certainly has in America — he doesn't care. In fact, in "Radio, Radio," he sings: "I want to bite the hand that feeds me. I want to bite that hand so badly. I want to make them wish they'd never seen me."

The song was written about American rock radio in 1978. "The radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools," he sang, "tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel." Last week he introduced the song by saying, "Some things haven't changed since the last time we were here."

Like the other fast songs they did that night, Elvis Costello and the Attractions rushed the rhythm on "Radio, Radio." It was as if they wanted to jump out in front of their own songs and get their hands on their targets. It was as if they were hot on the trail and closing in.

On the fast rockers, the Attractions created an agitated herky-jerky rhythm. This was achieved by staccato piano chords, choppy rhythm guitar and stuttering bass lines. The effect was unsettling, as if all the machinery were about to fall apart.

Over this nervous backing, Mr. Costello sang intimately, as if giving advice on how to get out before everything collapsed. He sang with the emotional quiver and melodic control of a superior country singer. It was as if George Jones were singing with the Velvet Underground.

This technique is also applied to the fast songs on Trust. "Lovers Walk" has the same jangling jungle beat that Fleetwood Mac's Tusk had. Mr. Costello uses that rhythm to make the lovers' walk sound like a spastic scramble instead of an idyllic stroll.

On "Pretty Words," the band lies low during the verses. As the organ swells, Mr. Costello recounts all the distracting "jibber jabber" around him. There's a brief pause and then the band kicks through its restraint for the chorus. Mr. Costello's heavily echoed voice screams over the rock and roll: "Pretty words don't mean much any more."

"White Knuckles" is a chilling account of "love" at its most rancid: wife-beating. Mr. Costello wonders why beaten wives stay with their husbands. "You don't have to take it," he whispers, "so you just give in."

Mr. Costello's backing band, the Attractions, keep getting better and better. Bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas translate reggae syncopation into quirky rhythms even stranger and more rebellious. Steve Nieve gets an oddly human sound out of his organ which often dialogues with Mr. Costello's voice.

Producer Nick Lowe turns up the echo on some choruses to make the lyrics resonate. He puts the rhythm section up front at time to sweep the listener up in the momentum. Then he'll drop the rhythm way down to pull the rug out. from under the listener.

Mr. Costello describes his own vocal technique on "From a Whisper to a Scream." On that song he is joined by guest vocalist Glenn Tilbrook and guest guitarist Martin Belmont.

Mr. Tilbrook led his own quintet, Squeeze, in the opening set at College Park. This British band has two albums on A&M Records full of Beatlesque harmonies and hooks. Their third album — produced by Mr. Costello — is due in March. Former Ace keyboardist Paul Carrack has replaced Jools Holland in the Squeeze lineup.

The new lineup put on an entertaining show with Mr. Tilbrook bouncing around the stage like a marionette. As likable as they were, however, they couldn't touch the power of what was to follow.

Martin Belmont — who has previously visited the area as part of Graham Parker and the Rumour and the Carlene Carter Band — joined Mr. Costello in College Park. His "chunka-chunk" rhythm guitar made the sound that much thicker.

Mr. Belmont's presence also allowed Mr. Costello to concentrate more on his singing. Though it's often obscured by his angry lyrics, his singing is exceptional. On the show's slower songs, he would abandon his guitar and focus on his dramatic flourishes.

On "Alison," Mr. Costello snapped his fingers to the beat and sang with a strange mix of anger and regret about innocence lost. "Well, I see you got a husband now," he simmered before climbing up the melody into "Did he leave your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake?"

Mr. Costello brings the same care to the slow songs on Trust. "New Lace Sleeves" is whispers confidentially over a quirky beat as if he were reading an intimate letter aloud. With a quiet hush, he shudders his central argument: "You never see the lies that you believe."

Each side of Trust ends with a song of advice for the young. "Watch Your Step" is a warning delivered over Steve Nieves slipping, sliding organ. "You're young and original," Mr. Costello advises, "get out before they get to watch your step."

"Big Sister's Clothes" opens and closes with strange, dreamy, outer-space synthesizer. Mr. Costello ponders why each generation succumbs to corrosive "love" like "sheep to the slaughter." He concludes that "All little sisters like to try on big sister's clothes."

Mr. Costello's theme is summed up in his original title for his Armed Forces album: Emotional Fascism. That album's next-to-last song was "Two Little Hitlers." The chorus featured Mr. Costello's bitterest view of "love": "Two little Hitlers fight it out until one little Hitler does the other one's will."

Mr. Costello is no nihilist like the Sex Pistols, however. Running through the work of this new Elvis is a quest for a new kind of love: honest human compassion. On his first album, he admitted he has "sneaky feelings. You can't let those feelings show. I'd like to get right through the way I feel for you, but I still got a long way to go."

On last year's Get Happy! album, he cried out desperately: "I need, I need the human touch!" On Trust, he drops his guard momentarily to suggest "a proposition for invasion of your privacy: give yourself away and find the faith in me." Later he concedes: "So I whisper and I scream, but don't get me wrong; please don't leave me waiting too long."

Perhaps his clearest statement of his quest comes in a Nick Lowe song. In his College Park concert, Mr. Costello and the Attractions stormed into that song as if it were marching music for the final assault on the citadel of cynicism.

Mr. Costello himself strode up to the microphone as if he were marching to a final rendezvous. "As I walk through," he boomed over his band's salvos, "this wicked world, searching for life in the darkness of insanity, I ask myself, 'Is all hope lost? Is there only pain, hatred and misery?' And each time I feel like suicide, there's one thing I wanna know..."

At this point the College Park crowd was on its feet. They shouted out the title line with the singer: "What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?" As Mr. Costello brought the song to a furious conclusion, his head snapped back from the microphone with a "take that" gesture.

The crowd's standing ovation was as much for the song's sentiment as for the singer. Elvis Costello leaped back at the mike and shouted: "You better believe it!"

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The Sun, February 10, 1981


Geoffrey Himes profiles EC, reviews Trust and reports on his concert with The Attractions and opening act Squeeze, Wednesday, January 28, 1981, Ritchie Coliseum, University Of Maryland, College Park, Maryland.

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