There probably isn't anybody better at setting snappy tunes to fretful realities than Elvis Costello. Disillusionment, despair and anger — all tinged with an effervescent cynicism — flourish in the bitter wit of this feisty Englishman. Yet, ever the pop-minded tunesmith, Costello renders the distasteful image palatable, the uncomfortable message accessible. On Trust, his fifth album in four years (sixth, counting a collection of 45 B-sides and studio rarities), addicting melodies still find their mark in tapping feet and bobbing heads, not to mention an occasional flailing body. But it's the lyrics, ranging from tough talk to utter hopelessness and confessional desperation, that supply the biggest jolt.
The ability or inability to communicate, usually with the opposite sex, has always been a pet neurosis of Costello's. Never has it been expunged with such chilling animosity. "Keep your lip buttoned up." we're told in the appropriately tilted "Strict Time" and "Better keep your big mouth shut," in the ironically dubbed "Pretty Words." Communication in general seems useless according to "Watch Your Step:" "Don't say a word; don't say anything. Don't say a word; I'm not even listening."
No, Costello isn't proscribing or giving in to a communication Hades. By analyzing the devils inside himself, and venturing to comment on those he perceives in others, he's frustrated. But he's fighting against empty faces and hollow emotions.
The big musical change on the album is the introduction of a piano in place of the sometimes perky, sometimes lush electric keyboard that cuts a swath through most songs on Costello's previous records. Steve Nieve, keyboard player for Costello's band the Attractions, has made the switch nicely. Whether providing grand flourishes, a spritely touch or a sturdy foundation, Nieve delivers what's needed to best support Costello's lyrical point. Only once, amid the hip melodrama of "Shot With His Own Gun" does he perhaps falter. With only Niece's piano backing Costello's voice (a surprising departure for Elvis — it's practically a cappella), we get the rather confusing, silly story of murder in the house. Nieve provides magnificent runs across the ivories, showcasing his technical prowess, but the entire effect is a bit forced and overwrought.
The single real mistake is "Luxembourg," a mock rave-up of Elvis Presley featuring muddy vocals incomprehensible without a lyric sheet. That aside, Trust works in the main because Elvis Costello cares about the crazy world we live in. He is the unflinching reporter gathering the ugly facts where he can find them. We shouldn't flinch, either. Heck, he was nice enough to make it pretty to listen to.