Harvard Crimson, April 2, 1981

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Something of a middlebrow

Elvis Costello and the Attractions / Trust

David B. Edelstein

It is a garish, cosmic nightclub, the figures on the floor drug-addled, lobotomized, throwing each other over, punching each other up, selling each other out.

Elvis Costello has played a lot of clubs these last few years; after an angry, violent American tour, morsels of America sizzled in his brainpan, and in Get Happy!! Elvis thrust his middle finger up her dumb whore B-Movie hole, the music as hyper-energized, as fractious and scrappy as the country itself. It was a smashing, reverberating disc that some of us thought would go through the roof critically and commercially.

Alas, audiences and rock critics can't digest so much. They prefer two-or-three-chord junk food — who said rock and roll wasn't about arrested development? Of course the songs on Get Happy!! didn't "breathe" — they were choked with carbon monoxide and tears of boredom, frustration, rage. Elvis was a ferret trapped in a septic tank...

He got his rocks off that time, the fury dribbled out, and Trust is his depressing post-coital meditation — no longer an active participant. Elvis watches us all from the stage.

Trust, his most objective album, is also his least taut: it breathes, and sometimes it hyperventilates. The songs are more spacious, giving Elvis more chances to pose, to mince a bit, and some of his vocals have a slurred, lolling quality, made creepy by strangely dissonant, disconnected back-up vocals.

See him there, leaning against the piano, "trying to look Italian to the musical Valium," all hope gone. He's always been cynical, but his anger signaled hope; Trust is faith in nothing.

This is some of his most "listenable" music, meaning that you can play it at parties without apologizing, you can listen to it in snatches. The choruses in particular tend to be more predictable than usual; the old stuff hurtled more, while Elvis kinda drifts up and down the scales here, which is okay since his voice gets more resonant, textured, and personable with each album. He could never be Tony Bennett, just as Woody Allen can't be Cary Grant, but both seem to be trying in their odd ways...

The Attractions have to fill a lot of gaps here, which they do stunningly. Steve Nieve puts some jolly tinkling all over the album, but I can't help feeling that he's a bit of a middlebrow even as he's sending up middlebrow music.

That's okay; I'm a bit of a middlebrow myself, and Elvis loves Cole Porter and Burt Bacharach. So "You'll Never Be a Man" comes out a dandy pop tune, Elvis blithely propositioning a poor woman who's "under the table with a chemical snake." (People think they're tough in this world, but they're jellybeans.)

"Pretty Words" ("don't mean much anymore / I don't mean to be mean much anymore") is a muddled mishmash of images. Elvis knocked senseless by machines, people weaving and stumbling around that nightclub, discovering later that the outside world is just as brutal and disorderly, with "millions murdered for a kiss-me-quick." (Think of "The Human Touch," which at least assumed there was such a thing, or that it could heal, anyway.)

"Strict Time," which follows, is the alternative — Shut Up and Dance, with the Attractions providing a relentless, broken-record riff that keeps Elvis on a treadmill. (Elvis is marvelous at trapping himself inside a melody, a regular rock and roll George Jetson.)

There is better: "Watch Your Step," a melodic improvement on "Secondary Modern," about how any moment you could be thrown in jail, or worse, about the risk of taking to the streets like the animals we are, drunk and destructive and horny, surrealistic images rolling smoothly:

Broken noses hung up on the wall,
Back-slappin drinkers cheer the heavyweight brawl,
So punch-drunk they don't understand at all.
You better watch your step.

Or "New Lace Sleeves," about thinking the world is what they say it is in movies or in the paper, and finding out it's all a sordid, ugly sham, the way Elvis did when all those record executives refused to look beyond his slightly spastic exterior — "Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere." The world sullied Elvis's new lace sleeves a long time ago and he still hasn't gotten over it: the song is like a river of tears, and Elvis's vocal is the most expressive of his career, choked yet fluent, cynical yet deeply innocent. It's a beautiful, intimate, cards-on-the-table number, with Pete Thomas's snare lightly searing your cranium.

Trust contains, however, two clunkers: "Different Finger," another of Elvis's dreary, patronizing, untranscendent country numbers, and "Shot With His Own Gun," a song for your daddy with a tune too feeble to accommodate the tragic sourfulness Elvis pours into it.

"Clubland" is diverting but stupid, with a deadly, unexpansive chorus that endlessly rehashes a bottom-of-the-barrel pattern of notes.

Which leaves, among other things, a nice, tinny, almost Brechtian exhortation to immorality in "Fish 'n' Chips Paper" (ironic, of course, but, unlike Brecht, pessimistic), and a delicate number called "Big Sister's Clothes" that exemplifies the change in Elvis's thinking:

It's easier to say 'I love you'
Than 'Yours sincerely,' I suppose,
All little sisters like to try on big sister's clothes.

There's no blame here, folks, or anger. People don't really want to hurt each other, they don't know what they're doing or thinking or saying. They just imitate. The nightclub in Trust is a world where no communication is possible, nothing makes sense, nothing is real. Except pain.

And Elvis has chronicled his pain, sometimes flaccidly, sometimes with the near-precision that is art. At 23, amazingly, he has earned his despair.


Harvard Crimson, April 2, 1981

David Edelstein reviews Trust.


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