Torn between welcoming the hostages and Chun Do Hwan last week, I opted out entirely in favor of Elvis Costello and his own brand of human rights, back in the USA after a two-year absence. On the third and last night of his sold-out Palladium shows, a less introverted (and pudgier!) Costello played a rousing 25-song set, pulling numbers from every album in a fast-slow-fast shuffle. Fitting somehow that I saw Costello and the Attractions last Monday night, the anniversary of Buddy Holly's death. Not to draw any anticipatory grisly parallels, but recall the cover of Elvis' first lp, My Aim is True — while taking the name of a larger pop hero, Costello played on Holly's image, knock-kneed and bespectacled, the ostrich head and neck, topped with Elvis' own stunted Mohawk of black bristle.
This night the fast songs — "Beaten to the Punch," "The Beat," "Mystery Dance," to name a few — positively pummeled the place. On the slower numbers — the lilters, the topers, the atmospheric covers — Elvis the enunciator fought with Elvis the slurry mood maker, and all seemed right with the world.
'Though one couldn't call him outgoing, and I waited in vain for his duckwalk, Costello was surprisingly goodhumored, illustrating his lyrics with simple gesticulations and bantering a bit with the band. The set was solid throughout (with a few lapses) and there were some stunning moments — "High Fidelity," the new "New Lace Sleeves," and "New Amsterdam," that breathtakingly grand but almost shy lament, which began the evening quietly with Costello on acoustic guitar backed by Steve Nieve on organ. Closing the set (before two encores totalling four songs) was a magnificent "What's So Funny ('Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?)," which filled the hall with such power it blazed golden and, for a minute, I almost thought the man could lead us all together somewhere.
Two things were most striking about the gig. For those who find a lack of diversity in his work, Costello confirmed this night his ability to take on a song from nearly any idiom — e.g. his cover of a Patsy Cline country tune, his cover of a Little Willie John blues number — and make it live.
The other thing was the Attractions: Elvis' vocals so dominate his records that sometimes the Attractions seem misnamed. But here the group carved a place for itself as a tight-rocking unit of distinctive talent. Clearly a virtuoso, organ and piano player Steve Nieve pranced up and down his keyboards, mixing his classical training with board modern hymnals and moody quirks, comic Farfisa once-removed and rinky-dink doodling. Bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas supplied an efficient and unshowy rhythm section; although both players can liberally color or let loose on a song, they also know when to shut up, providing the pauses or holes essential to a good pop song, and particularly to Elvis' for his songs' emotional impact. (Costello himself plays an adequate rhythm guitar).
This night was further proof that Elvis Costello has hooked himself onto the rock 'n' roll timeline and given a second meaning to his first name, if not by the profusion of material he's recorded thus far then by its remarkable good consistency. The concept of a "transitional album" just doesn't apply here.
There was a reason for the Palladium shows, and it is Trust, Costello's new album, his sixth since 1977 and the third one in a year (although the last, Taking Liberties, wasn't exactly new. It is a collection of unreleased master cuts, singles' B-sides, and tracks off his British-released albums). Wouldn't you know that just when people were wondering if he was washed up, Elvis Costello releases his best album yet (and that's on the record). Less immediately hooky than Get Happy of early '80, and a little harder to get into, Trust goes beyond being a mere compendium of his work. The overall tone of Trust strikes lower, deeper and the album holds together better than any of his past LPs. Thematically, Armed Forces might appear to be the most unified Costello effort but Trust is subtler in its connections and perhaps more mysterious.
Produced by Nick Lowe (as always), the record is as much the Attractions' as it is Elvis': the music is fuller and more textured than on Get Happy, which in its sharp, bright flashes of inspiration, was relatively spare or at least more straightforward. Less six songs, Trust is musically ambitious and the spread-out sound, while lacking the initial punch of its predecessor, plants a substantial foot on your chest and digs in over repeated listenings. (The songs are still short, the majority under three minutes). Costello has always been interested in conveying snarled and knotty complexities in a short period of time — he does so impressively here, with less freneticism than before, against a vari-colored musical backdrop.
Nieve's keyboard playing, electrokinetic and eclectic, is prominent and offset on a couple tracks by the addition of guitarist Martin Belmont of the Rumour. But the instrumentals are relatively restrained because Costello's vocals can't be. This issue is one which has been known to break up families and divide parties — you either love his voice or want to tie his cords around a telephone pole. Adenoidal, alliterative, thoroughly authoritative, Costello's voice has the percussive force and elasticity to make his convoluted lyrics more than heady wordplay.
In a very broad sense, Costello, as a master of figurative language, has always explored the connections between the personal and the political (Armed Forces' subtitle — "Emotional Fascism"). He has inflated small subjects with symbolic potency ("Chemistry Class": "You've got a chemistry class / I want a piece of your mind / ...Are you ready for the final solution?") ("Two Little Hitlers," describing a bedroom battlefield). Sexual politics, yes, but he's not a politician; he doesn't have a line — he's got fifteen thousand.
Costello's verbal dexterity can be overwhelming, the sheer excess of verbiage creating a surface sheen to slide right off of — you can't enter his songs sometimes. Maddeningly clever, ear-teasing, he can spin out exquisite un-breakable miniatures — and the profusion of words on top of the cleanest little pop songs strike some as overly indulgent and fastidious at once.
Interesting, in this light, that Trust is all about learning how to keep one' mouth shut but desiring to let it all out:
"Better keep your big mouth shut
Pretty words don't mean much anymore
I don't mean to be mean much anymore..."
"Dub it up
Double up (?)
Keep your lip buttoned up
"Watch Your Step":
"Don't say a word
Don't say anything.. "
"From a Whisper to a Scream":
"Like a finger running down a seam
From a whisper to a scream Oh!"
The songs treat emotional and physical violence, sexual identity, social corruption and suspicion. "Watch Your Step" could address any rock 'n' roll band aspiring to greatness (The Clash?). "Clubland," the single and the first cut on the album inverts the idea in "Friday On My Mind": "Thursday to Saturday / Money's gone already... / Have you ever been had / In Clubland?" In this song, as in the earlier anthem "Radio, Radio" ("They really think we're getting out of control!"), Costello's gesture at once identifies himself as an artist and as part of an audience — both sides get screwed by the (radio) (corporation) (corrupt club owners).
The album's swinging stunner, "New Lace Sleeves," spares nothing lyrically: "Bad lovers face to face in the morning / Shy apologies and polite regrets..." and features brilliant vocals, even a quasi-Al Green succession of high notes. And a rollicking rock/pop kiss of a song turns on a vocal tradeoff between Costello and Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook, to which Costello gives the whiskey and Tilbrook the cream in "From a Whisper to a Scream."
Musically Trust is a melange of period pieces, as the album cover and sleeve hint at, with photos of the band lodged in a phoney cocktail lounge setting and with Elvis fronting a big band. Inside are the everpresent (these days) Costello country tune, a Sinatra-esque jazzy-vocal number, Caribbean rolls, a Bo Diddley reminder and, in "Luxembourg," an early rock 'n' roll rave filtered through Lennon ("Well, well, well"). Not a mediocre track on Trust, Elvis Costello has given us evidence here that he's got a lot more to do. "Still got a long way to go..." he warned us on his first LP, and he meant it.
For some, this stuff — it might be a little old-hat. Costello is like a good liberal trying to figure things out within the system (which means its his content, not his form, that's subversive). But, damn it, it's compelling. Good rock 'n' roll has in the past always toyed with its own history with one hand while throwing it all away with the other. Costello might not be exploding the framework, but he's exploring it and jerking it around enough to make us care. I'm thankful.