When Elvis Costello hit the scene late in 1977, he seemed to many in the old guard the ultimate "fad" musician. The strutting superstar style was under attack from a new wave of rockers, and Costello was anti-glamour with a vengeance.
He was scrawny and bespectacled. He stood with his knees together and his toes pointing inward. He had short hair, which was then starting to become fashionable with the trendy set. And he had the kind of name that some performers adopt to draw attention from less-than-stellar music.
Now that the dust has settled, many of the Young Turks of 1977 whatever their lasting influence have themselves fallen by the wayside, which is true in any such movement. But of those who succeeded in breaking through to the consciousness of the great American public, Elvis Costello stands near the top.
The reason is simple: Costello is a master songwriter, he has an extraordinary band and he has Nick Lowe for a producer. All these things come through on Costello's new record, Trust (Columbia JC 37051), his fifth studio album.
On the other hand, they did not come through last weekend at Costello's Tower Theater concert in Upper Darby, Pa. Thanks to a mix which blurred everything into a glop of sound, the songs and the playing lacked definition.
In short, Costello who is touring this country for the first time in two years flounders a bit without the assistance Lowe provides on the albums, although he remains far more interesting than the general run of heavy metal kids and leftover superstars who often grace the concert stage these days.
The songs on Trust are closer to those on 1979's Armed Forces than on last year's Get Happy, which had a stripped-down Motown flavor. They have just enough complexity to be interesting on more than a visceral level, but they never forget about melody.
Costello is one of the best melody writers around. Costello's fuzzy baritone hasn't changed much; he doesn't have great range, but he's expressive. The vocal situation is improved when Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze joins in on "From a Whisper to a Scream."
Although the two alternate vocals instead of harmonizing, Tilbrook's presence extends the vocal presence upward and generally adds lightness and agility.
Costello's backup players, the Attractions, have always been top-notch. The Attractions, who first showed up on 1978 s This Year's Model, when they provided a spare keyboard-bass-drums accompaniment, have gotten more sophisticated. They're sort of like the Section (Jackson Browne's backup group) of the New Wave. Among New Wave backup groups, perhaps only Graham Parker's the Rumour is a rival.
Keyboard player Steve Nieve in particular enriches the texture with a variety of styles on a variety of keyboard instruments. Bassist Bruce Thomas can drive a song and embellish it with insinuating notes.
Costello retains his bleak view of relationships. He seems to find "lying skin to skin" distasteful and, like a guilty Puritan, he sings of "bad lovers face to face in the morning / shy apologies and polite regrets / slow dances that left no one enough." But he presents his negative view with such a command of language that we tend to consider seriously protests that might otherwise sound like mere whining.
Few of the words came through in his Tower Theater concert, not even those Costello said between songs. He had his voice echoed so much that it seems he doesn't trust it, which is especially bad with a sound mix that doesn't allow individual instruments to have a distinct voice either (sometimes Nieve's keyboards broke through anyway).
One of the highlights of the show came when Tilbrook joined the group for "From a Whisper to a Scream," sung during the second of two encores. Guitarist Martin Belmont of the Rumour helped out on that one and on other songs. (Costello basically just strums his guitar). Belmont also shows up on Trust.
Visually, Costello has changed in subtle ways. He still has his accountant's glasses, but they're tinted. He still favors coats and ties, but now he's more formal in what appears to be a grey dinner jacket with vest underneath. Combined with the few extra pounds he's picked up, these qualities make him look like a young banker on the rise.
Squeeze opened for Costello, and reinforced what its latest album Argybargy indicates: that this is one of the best groups currently playing pop or rock music.