The cover of Elvis Costello's latest album, Trust, shows New Wave's main man peeking from behind sunglasses and with eyebrows raised, as he seems to pose the question, "Would you buy a new record from this man?"
Costello apparently hopes we will. As he explained on a recent Tom Snyder show, he wants his listeners to trust him while he pursues different musical avenues.
For the most part, the new album (his fifth) does differ from past releases. The arrangements are less complicated than even those on This Year's Model, and The Attractions (drummer Pete Thomas, keyboard player Steve Nieve and bass player Bruce Thomas) are tighter than ever, proving again that they're the best back-up band in rock.
Yet Trust can't really be regarded as an improvement on Costello's previous body of work, especially the first three gems, My Aim Is True (1977), This Year's Model and Armed Forces (both 1978). Those now-classic albums were free of the pretension that first became noticeable on last year's Get Happy — or as some detractors called it, "Get Sleepy" — and now hangs heavily over Trust.
Quick glances at the cover art of My Aim Is True and Trust confirm Costello's stepped-up self-consciousness. On the jacket of his debut record, he's a cocky kid with a smirk on his face and his guitar poised for action. The album credits for his latest album are laid out in the style of a movie ad, and a silly inner sleeve photo reveals Elvis in a somber, Bogart pose, wearing a felt hat and a coat with the collar turned up as he lights a cigarette.
But the real proof is in the songs, or more specifically in the lyrics. Costello has staked his reputation on crafty lyrics that proved enigmatic upon the first listen but ultimately formed a fascinating if not wholly clear picture, like a cubist painting. Once the puns were deciphered and the images pieced together Costello's songs would hit home with a visceral impact unique to pop music.
Unfortunately, this isn't the case on Trust. The elements here are so disparate that it seems impossible to make sense of them. Imagine taking the pieces of several different jigsaw puzzles and trying to construct them into one picture. Most of Elvis' new material lacks the pivotal ingredients that made his earlier numbers so absorbing.
Trust nonetheless has its moments. Costello simply possesses too much talent to produce a total flop. Although their lyrics are somewhat muddled, songs such as "Clubland," "You'll Never Be A Man," "Pretty Words," "New Lace Sleeves" and "From A Whisper to A Scream" include melodies and arrangements as good as anything else you're likely to hear this year.
"Different Finger," a country tune reflecting Elvis' professed admiration for Hank Williams, sounds completely incongruous yet simultaneously provides some relief amid the New Wave tracks on the album. It's also the only song on Trust with straightforward lyrics. (The song concerns a man who asks a woman he picks up in a bar to wear her wedding ring on "a different finger" so that he'll feel less guilty.)
Straightforwardness, however, is at a minimum. Almost all of Trust is bogged down by Costello's self-consciousness, as on the melodramatic "Shot With His Own Gun," featuring Elvis' histrionic vocal and Nieves morose piano accompaniment.
It's difficult to determine exactly when certain rock artists develop the guilty feeling they need to become complex with time. They seem to equate intricacy with maturity. Perhaps Elvis Costello feels that as he grows older (he's only 26!) he has to abandon the directness of his salad days.
An old tenet among all craftsmen states the best creations are simple heart. Elvis should keep this in mind, or else he may become more of a poseur and less of a rocker. One thing he must be conscious of is keeping him aim true.