I wouldn't want Elvis Costello to date my sister.
Costello, of course, is the guy still notorious for turning off the speakers at a 1979 Princeton concert when the crowd wouldn't dance. Along the way, he has insulted fans, played 45 minute concerts with no encores, cleared auditoriums by blasting nothing but white noise, and deservedly taken a debilitating kick from Bonnie Bramlett for his witty (?) remarks about Ray Charles.
Now this fun fellow is in the midst of his first U.S. tour in two years, supporting his new Trust album. Why should anybody pay attention to him?
Simply because, despite all the crap, the whining, the self-pity, the apparent disregard for his usually enthusiastic audiences, this anemic Orville Redenbacker clone is still making great music. I have trouble understanding it, too.
But let's face it In rock, as in the real world, Nice Guys Finish Last. Neither Bobby Sherman nor David Cassidy, who I feel sure would be two of the biggest sweethearts ever to worm their way into your living room, has ever made music that was even remotely interesting.
Costello has — consistently — and with Trust he continues his streak.
If Costello has become a bit repetitive on some of his slower numbers, (compare "Watch Your Step" with "Secondary Modern" from Get Happy) it is still to his credit that his aptitude for different styles carries such a keen edge. On Trust, he supplies country-western ("Different Finger"), hard rock with a pseudo-Oriental piano line ("Lover's Walk"), fifties-type raveups ("Luxembourg"), infectious pop/new wave ("From a Whisper to a Scream"), and rockabilly boogie ("Strict Time"). We also hear snatches of Reggae, Beatles' influences, and (yes) classical music.
Keyboardist Steve Nieve's efforts on Trust might restore as much enthusiasm for the acoustic piano sound in rock as Earl Hines' did so many years ago for the instrument in jazz. His fills save the rather weak "Pretty Words," and his haunting accompaniment on "Shot With His Own Gun" sent chills up more than one spine I can account for at New York's Palladium last Saturday. He bangs the rhythm and the hock into almost every song on the album.
So the music is fine, perhaps the best ever on a Costello album. But with Costello, as is true with only a handful of other current rock figures, the music is only half the story.
"She has eyes like saucers /so you know she is a dish" might not be everyone's idea of humor, nor the funniest line Costello has ever penned (I am still partial to the first line on the Armed Forces album, "I just don't know where to begin"). In fact, the couplet is a throwaway. But it's a good throwaway, an interesting one, and others of its ilk perk up the listener for the more substantial stuff.
"The salty lips of the socialite sisters / with their continental fingers / they're never seen workin' blisters / I wish I was one of them..." Certainly he doesn't mean that, the young proletarian Elvis fan thinks — he is just poking fun. But everyone wants to be rich, the Mobil executive Elvis fan has noted, and his point is just as valid. Costello might be revealing himself through the words, or hiding behind them.
"Will you look what love has done?" he begs, he screams not four minutes into the album. When you care, love burns you. Costello feels burned; he considers himself scarred. But at least one thing on the album is certain. "It's no big sin / lyin' skin to skin." There's no reason to stop and heal. Costello won't. Under his bad guy pose lurks one of the last great romantics. And I guess that's really why I won't let him date my sister.