Anyone trying to deduce the state of British pop from this month's releases is liable to end up utterly confused. In the singles field, the electronic warblings of the New Romantics are making their impact, though the best new single is by rockabilly band (the Stray Cats), while the new album releases vary from all-electronic soloists to home-made Ska, from the deliberately hopeless cult of punk pathetique to old-fashioned CND protest. Among all of that, the best new album of the month is a somewhat safe and predictable choice, for it's by one member of the post-punk new wave who has so far not put a foot wrong.
Trust (F-Beat) is Elvis Costello's fifth album, and shows he's still a prolific writer. There are 14 new songs here (there were 20 on the last album) and if on first hearing they sound like the standard Costello offerings, then listen again. Costello, like Ian Dury, in a very different field, is a song-writing craftsman, and is part of a tradition of great popular music, not just great rock 'n' roll. His songs are beat ballads, and there's equal emphasis here on the beat and the balladry — from a rocker like "Luxembourg" to a balled like "Shot With His Own Gun," sung to only piano accompaniment. The album has its share of strong melodies (and its share of Costello standard melodies, it's true), but as in the past it's the emotional range of the lyrics that's important. Songs of sexual guilt, sexual insecurity, or sex without feeling appear alongside well observed, bleak atmospheric songs like "Clubland" or a vicious considered attack like "You'll Never Be A Man."
Costello is a master of great one-liners, and this latest batch of songs is enlivened with lyrics like "You need protection from the physical side of conversation," "Bad lovers face to face in the morning" or "how does it feel now you've been undressed by a man with a mind like the gutter press?" The last quote is from Shot With His Own Gun, which is crooned against the solo piano, with a swooping melody and black lyrics that (with very different treatment) might have come from Steely Dan. That's one sign of Elvis progressing beyond the much-imitated Costello sound. The other is "Different Finger," in which he celebrates his love of country music with a ballad that mixes loving parody with unexpected emotional intensity. All this and help from an increasingly subtle backing band, the Attractions. Costello hasn't had much commercial success in the singles market of late, but as an album maker his reputation remains firmly intact.