Now available in your record shop: Elvis Costello's latest memo to the masses, a fourteen-song knock-out called Trust. On it, Elvis and the Attractions radically re-work some of the themes and idees fixees found on their previous four albums. A heightened exigency pulses in each track, and the net result is an album of irresistible intensity.
On Trust Elvis remains the fine lyricist he's always been, and discerning the twists and deviations in his stream of thought remains a virtual "mystery dance" through the first few listenings.
After the songs have begun to sink in though, it becomes very apparent that Elvis isn't "getting happy" this time out. The picture is clear that what he's presenting is the world gone war-monger mad; a world in which the prevailing militarism has infected all aspects of life, and where love itself is regimented, destroying whatever peace and understanding remain.
It is a depressing album overall. The manic hope that characterized Get Happy, This Year's Model, and My Aim is True is nowhere found on Trust. If it resembles any other Costello disc, it would be Armed Forces where he effectively decried and defied the forces of emotional fascism.
But there too, one had the impression that all was not lost; and the music, for the most part a pop-wave of sound, carried hopes beyond Nick Lowe's "What's so funny..." On Trust, the emphasis is direct and even frantic. The music changes gears on almost every song, from the "Secondary Modernesque" resignation on "Watch Your Step," to the biting rave of "Luxemboug."
On "Pretty Words" Costello graphically sets up the place of communication in our nuclear age. All the subtleties are stripped away in the face of imminent destruction, and the jist of everything is misconstrued. As he says in the chorus: "All I see are snapshots, pin shots, dead spots, mug shows, machine slots / You don't know what's what, you don't know what you got." With none of the trappings of civilization left, he concludes "There's not much joy / between a cruel mouth and a jealous voice" — the very antithesis of Get Happy!!!
From the boudoir, where Elvis' reveries left him (usually alone) before, his scenarios on Trust take him to the boot camps, which to his mind are everywhere. In a world of widespread economic collapse, everyone lives and breathes under "Strict Time."
Elvis however remains aloof, mocking and bombasting the dehumanized situation in his own cryptic style. He's referring to himself when he observes the "Civil disobedience form a soldier with a dirty rifle." From an aggressive atomic world his empassioned plea is heard: "I don't wanna be first / I just wanna last!"
He counters the fascism he sees on every front, including the home front "New Lace Sleeves" is a scathing indictment of a wilfully ignorant and indulgent bourgeoisie whose ethics are the same as the political ones (of colonialism and exploitation) that afford them their ease and detachment.
Costello spares none of his pent-up gall in parodying the haughty bitches: "The salty lips of the socialite sisters / With their continental fingers / That have never seen work and blisters / Oh, I know they got their problems" are lines delivered with the most mordacious irony found in Elvis' repertoire.
He explodes their defenses, sardonically singing "You say the teacher never told you anything but white lies / But you never see the lies that you believe," and he leaves them there, "all covered up in white-wash and newsprint," to wait for daddy, who's "coming home soon / With his Sergeant's stripes and his / Empire Mug and spoon." The song has to rank among the most effective he's penned.
Prostitutes and prostitution have plagued Costello's plangent visions for as long as he's been writing. They were everywhere on Get Happy!!! , and on Trust (in "From a Whisper to a Scream" and the haunting "Big Sister's Clothes") they epitomise the fascism in the sexual realm, and consistently leave Elvis "waiting too long," producing a lot of the frustrated energy that vibrates throughout this album.
"White Knuckles" details a vulgar, violent, yet all too often, true love story. The brute force that characterizes the military has made it's way down into a fatuous marriage, where the husband is a wife beater, the wife a traumatized victim who sees the "white knuckles up on the headboard" and wonders where and when her spouse has changed.
Elvis must listen to his strong sense of morality, and speculates: "Maybe they weren't loved when they were young / Maybe they should be hung by their tongues." The song is startling direct, and the theme hits home like a smash to the temple. "It gets right under your skin / It makes you as miserable as sin," but it also effectively raises the social issue.
On the album's most esoteric cut, a stark and disquieting tune with a Rachmanninofesque grand piano accompaniment, entitled "Shot With His Own Gun," Costello pursues the ways in which familial bliss is poisoned. An unwanted pregnancy is at issue, and while the father keeps silent, he vows that "Now somebody has to pay / For the one that got away," and generally destroys the mother.
The offspring isn't spared daddy's wrath either, and as Elvis plaintively relates: "The little corporal got in the way and he got hit by an emotional ricochet / It's a bit more now than dressing up dolly / Playing house seems so melancholy." And so the beat goes on, into another generation, infected by the same disease of militarism, of relentless mechanical grace.
The album grows steadily more depressing by the end of side two, but in the midst of despair, Elvis stands his ground; a vulnerable, yet honest commentator on the rise of all forms of fascism in Western society. He doesn't want our pity, but he demands our trust. Heed him.