Elvis Costello's musical career recalls a remark someone once made in describing China: "an enigma wrapped in a riddle" (or something like that). The man has broken so much new musical ground in the last four years that he should be a multi-platinum success by now. But he's not, and it hasn't been a result of Costello putting out bad LPs; his worst would put the best of some so-called "superstars" to shame.
Perhaps it's a matter of perception. Costello always has been slightly out of sync with the times. visually: in 1977, when everybody in Britain wanted to look like the Sex Pistols, he looked slightly like Buddy Holly. Now, when certain Americans want to look like everybody in Britain looked four years ago (or worse yet, like the Plasmaties look now), he still looks slightly like Buddy Holly.
Costello's tours (at least before this year's) have not helped much either. The Armed Forces excursion was a case of bad feelings on all sides. Sets tended to he short, encores non-existant. Costello was notorious for not speaking a word between songs.
Words of another sort tended to get him in trouble as well. Calling Ray Charles a "dumb, blind nigger" in a bar incident two years ago lingered long in the public's mind.
But Elvis means to change all that with his newest album, Trust. On what may be their most accessible disc ever, Costello and the Attractions have given the world a set packed with potential hit singles.
When perusing this LP, one first notices that the number of songs included is down by a third from Get Happy or Taking Liberties Rather than the 20 tunes that each of those LPs featured, there are a mere 14 here. But Trust lasts almost as long as either of those two sets. There is more room for instrumentation here and more space for Costello's vocals to function.
And these vocals need space. For Trust Costello has written some of the most metrically complicated and lengthy lyrics in recent memory. Only the Clash's Joe Strummer can rival Costello in the ability to sing lines convincingly that lesser vocalists would stumble over or crack up on:
Broken noses hung up on the wall
Back-slappin' drunks cheer the heavyweight brawl
So punch drunk they don't understand at all
These are not the easiest lyrics to sing, especially in the context of the rhythms and melody lines which Costello and the Attractions surround them with.
But Costello and Co. always have managed to mate unusual vocal lines with complex and difficult rhythmic and melodic structures. Since the Attractions often play as a three-piece this is even more significant, as each member of the band must carry more weight than most rock musicians handle.
They are well equipped to handle it. Each member of the Attractions could star in any other group: here they get into some of the tightest ensemble playing committed to vinyl these days. Here, as usual, most of the focus falls on Steve Nieve's keyboards. Nieve provides the dramatic force on which many of Costello's songs succeed or rail. A particular case in point here is "Shot With His Own Gun," which features only Costello's vocals and Nieve's piano. As Nieve plays a dramatic and spare piano figure, Costello tells a tale of broken love:
What's on his mind now is anyone's guess
You're losing his touch now with each caress
Spend every evening looking so appealing
He comes without warning, leaves without feeling
The effect, which has nothing really to do with rock 'n' roll, is quite stunning, and reminiscent of "Accidents Will Happen," from the Live at Hollywood High EP.
The other Attractions, while not given Nieve's prominance. nonetheless turn in consistently strong performances. Bruce Thomas' fluid, effective play proves he is one of today's most critically-regarded bassists. Drummer Pete Thomas (no relation) continues his tradition of inventive. restrained percussion work, and Elvis, along with former Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, contributes some interesting guitar.
One of the dramatic departures on this LP is made by the man behind the board. Nick Lowe. His production here is a departure from Get Happy's dense, instrumentally-dominated sound. Costello's vocals are more easily audible and comprehensible than they've been since My Aim is True. Part of this, of course, has to do with how he delivers them. Much of Get Happy's pace was so manic and vocals so double-tracked, it was hard to figure what all the fuss was about. Trust features a more relaxed pace coupled with less double-tracking and less vocals shifting from channel to channel (a big favorite on This Year's Model).
What you hear, however, is not always that pleasant. Costello's voice is in fine form, but as usual, the lyrics often are frightening in their intensity. Elvis likes to deal with subjects that can hit close to home, like love and hate, and therefore can chill on the slightest provocation:
Maybe they weren't loved when they were young
Maybe they should have been hung by their tongues
White knuckles on black and blue skin
Didn't mean to hit her but she just kept laughin'
Costello's low opinion of almost everything is displayed at points throughout the LP, such as on "You'll Never Be a Man":
You'll never be a man
No matter how many foreign bodies you can take
You'll never be a man
When you're half a woman and you're half awake
Or on "Pretty Words," where he fires such shots as: "you don't know what you've got" and the following:
But there's not much choice
Between a cruel mouth
And a jealous voice
These lyrics apparently are launched at critics and fans.
The album's highlight and one of the highlights of Elvis' career comes on side two's "From a Whisper to a Scream." Here Costello, trading vocals with Squeeze's Glen Tilbrook, explodes through a song which has hit single written all over it. The song opens with a manic, slashing guitar passage which recalls This Year's Model, and then Costello's vocals come hurtling out of the mix. His first verse is answered by Tilbrook:
Taken' every word she says just like an open invitation
But the power of persuasion is no match for anticipation
Costello later fires back:
If the customers like it then they keep on payin'
If they keep on drinkin' then they'll keep on stayin'
For a few vibrant minutes the two voices stand toe-to-toe, slugging it out on verse and chorus. The big winner is the audience.
Trust, then, represents Elvis Costello at his most commercially-accessible. Never before has Elvis loaded an LP with so many potential hits. As he sings on "Pretty Words:"
Pretty words don't mean much anymore
I don't mean to be mean much anymore
That's quite a statement from a man who once said his motivation for getting into music was "fear and guilt " This LP ought to break Elvis out of the cult status he has enjoyed since 1977. The cult has gotten bigger every year, but this ought to be the big one. There is something for everyone on Trust, from the country sound of "Different Finger," to the drama of "Shot With His Own Gun," to the snappy, reggae-based "Lover's Walk," and much in between.
in the overall Costello picture. although Trust gets third place in his LPs' ranking, the distance between the top three is about as wide as your little finger.