ATLANTA — So, you're all depressed because Elvis Costello once again skipped South Florida on the latest of his infrequent tours of the States. The new album, Trust, is out — you'll console yourself with that — but ... you want to see what this colossus of the new rock 'n' roll is like in the flesh, eyeball-to-beady-eyeball.
Unfortunately for you, the closest Elvis — like major league baseball — comes to South Florida is Atlanta.
Well, don't despair. Take it from one who trekked to Atlanta: You're just as well off putting your faith in Trust. Judging from Costello's Jan. 24 concert at the Fabulous Fox, you're not missing anything you can't live without. E.C. in concert is better than No Fun, but these days, he's certainly No Big Deal.
Elvis himself is getting bigger, in the physical sense. He looks like he's added about 20 or 30 pounds to his once-lean frame, so he now looks more like an accountant than ever. This is, of course, nothing that important in itself, but Elvis' new-found flatulence carries over to the show, too.
His hour-long set (plus a 15-20 minute double encore) was plagued — almost ruined by a disastrously muddy sound, especially on Costello's vocals. And since his voice carries the melody in nearly all his songs, if the vocal is lost, the songs lose their shape.
The sound can't be blamed on the Fox. Opening act Squeeze (oddly, top-billed on the marquee) sounded great — clear and sharp. The crucial difference was this: I didn't know any Squeeze songs and found all of them instantly enjoyable and accessible. I knew almost all of the Costello songs and still found many of them hard to follow.
It wasn't strictly a matter of sound quality, though. The approach of Costello and his Attractions — Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums — was a problem, too. The band works best when they play with a lean, spare intensity, something they're perfectly capable of achieving, and something they did pull off with stunning success on their 1978 tour. At the Fox, they just sounded frantic and clumsy.
Costello pulled out one personnel surprise — the addition of Martin Belmont of the Rumour on guitar for the last six songs of the set, apparently signaling an end to Elvis' phobia about sharing the stage with another guitarist. Belmont fit right in, but his presence naturally didn't help to clear up the clutter.
Structurally speaking, the show was a good sampling of Costello's career: two songs from his first album (including the quickest, most perfunctory "Alison" imaginable), four from This Year's Model, three from Armed Forces, five from Get Happy, five from Trust and five from various other sources.
He opened, backed only by piano, with "Just A Memory" from Taking Liberties. Slow and austere, this song had things clear for a moment, but then a fuzzy "Accidents Will Happen" took the show into hard-rock mushland, where it remained for the bulk of the show.
The only relief came on the slower numbers, such as "Clowntime Is Over" (Taking Liberties version) or "Secondary Modern," both of which emerged clear and strong. It's too bad the rockers didn't come off better, since he has plenty of fine ones in his repertoire, but they just didn't.
There were some nice touches to the performance. Elvis seemed friendly, even talking a bit to the audience and introducing the band members with a hearty good cheer. And intercutting his reggae-ish "Watching The Detectives" with a slice of Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster" was a great stroke.
All in all, though, you're likely to find more pleasure in Trust than you would have in concert.
Unfortunately, that doesn't mean Trust is a real killer, either. Although it's hard to believe, a mellow Costello is what we seem to have on our hands here.
In the early days — up to early 1980, even — Elvis' appeal came basically from his intense bitterness and the way he crafted it into brief, piercing rock/pop songs.
He appears to have decided that he can't keep riding the bitterness forever, so he's wisely dropping it. But with that realignment, his songs seem to be losing some force as well.
So Trust is something unique for Costello — a friendly, comfortable album. It has 14 songs that are as well crafted as ever but not as powerful or intense. The dominant instrumentalist is Nieve, with his smooth organ and piano playing. Elvis uses his gentle voice more often than his hard one. And while fully half of the songs fall into the ballad class, only four are out-and-out rockers. The album proceeds at an even pace; it includes no real dogs and few that jump out a head of the pack.
Adding further to the comfortable, old-shoes feel of Trust is the way many of the songs sound familiar on first hearing. Little snatches of old Costello melodies sneak into a lot of the songs, and some seem to be little more than alternate versions of previous releases.
And Costello's penchant for bad puns keeps things familiar on the lyric front, too. Check these babies out "I don't want to be first, I just want to last," or "A cold sweat breaks out on a sweater girl." or "She's got eyes like saucers; you think she's a dish." Wonderful stuff.
The deja vu feeling is something of a drawback in the flaming-burst-of-creativity department, but it also makes Trust a very safe album. You can trust it. It won't let you down. It's nice. It's 14 new entries for the Costello canon. No reason to complain.
Overall, the evidence onstage and on vinyl seems to suggest that Costello is definitely slowing down. The signs all point to it — the extra pounds, the friendliness to the audience, the frenzied stage show that strives vainly to achieve the intensity that used to come so easily, the pleasantness of the new album.
I'd hate to say Elvis is running out of steam. That would be jumping to conclusions. Right now, he's definitely in a lull. But its not necessarily belt to stay, and as fast as Costello works, there's no reason to think it will last long.