When Elvis Costello appeared on the Tomorrow show a few weeks back, his performance — both talking and singing — was noteworthy for two reasons. For one thing, it showed Elvis as an articulate, witty, and thoughtful artist who doesn't mind sitting down and discussing himself and his work.
But his appearance also deserves attention for something specific he said there. Questioned about recent alterations (some call them "refinements") in his music, Elvis disdained any notion that he was "maturing" as an artist ("Mature — it sounds like something cheese does" was the way he put it), then shrugged and said he was merely trying to work from a broader base.
Trust proves he wasn't kidding.
With his first two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model Costello established himself as an angry, sensitive young man in a placid, unfeeling world. With Armed Forces, Elvis' attitude stayed the same, but his delivery changed: the raw, bare-bones sound of the first two albums gave way to a more refined and deliberate use of the recording studio. The result was his most accessible and most popular record. Last years Get Happy, an ambitious 20-songs-on-one-record project, came off unfortunately half-cocked: too many good ideas with not enough thought put into them.
Thankfully, Trust avoids Get Happy's excesses — with seven songs on each side, there's not a clinker in the bunch. And Nick Lowe's production is of a kind with his fine work on Armed Forces — just the right mix of Pete Thomas' reverberating drumbeats, undercut by Steve Nieve's deft keyboard runs, Bruce Thomas' bass, and Costello's economic, and always effective, guitar chords.
Costello's base is definitely broadening. Trust contains a genuine country number, some Phil-Spectorish bombast, a song where Elvis croons accompanied only by a grand piano, and several others that betray a certain sensitivity barely evident in much of his earlier work.
In its most general sense, the themes which dominate Costello's work have never changed — only his methods have been adapted. Like many new-wave artists, he sees himself in a world that isn't half of what it could be, a world where so much of what it means (or should mean) to be a human being has been trivialized, has lost its meaning.
But unlike many of his peers (The Jam, and, to a more politicized degree, The Clash), whose work deals mainly with society as a whole, Elvis' compositions deal primarily with personal relationships, with the pratfalls inherent to the modem game of love. For Elvis, even the work "Love" itself has become little more than something used to sell greeting cards (listen to "Lover's Walk" from the new album, to the way he spits out two-word love cliches as though he's composing an advertising jingle).
Costello's concerns are often with words, not with what they mean, but wan the regrettable tact that what words mean and how they are perceived are often two different things. Trust's cover photo doesn't so much ask "Trust me" as it begs the question: how can you trust me when you probably don't even know what trust is?
Rather than offer solutions, the songs here serve more as warnings: "Be on caution where lovers walk," "Pretty words don't mean much anymore," "Passion went out of fashion," "The teacher never taught you anything but white lies." Elvis demands that the listener first realize the danger; once that happens, anything becomes possible.
Whether Costello has gone beyond realizing the danger to finding a solution remains open to question, and serves as a unifying point between two of the album's finest songs. "Watch Your Step," with its whispered vocals and underlying organ swirls, sounds as though the singer is singing more to himself than his audience — when he observes "They're making heroes out of fall guys / They say it's good for business," is Costello that fall guy?
"From A Whisper To A Scream," with accompanying vocals from Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, is directed at one of Costello's favorite targets — the uncooperative lover. For Elvis, women are frequently teases, and almost always disappointments. To a woman more interested in playing games than feeling emotions, he screams: "The power of persuasion is no match for anticipation."
All Elvis wants, it seems, is for people to level with him — and with themselves.
Occasionally, Elvis opts to concentrate on one particular theme, zeroing in on a definite target: "Clubland" on the surface a diatribe against country clubs that exclude one group or another, is actually a scathing attack on the very notion of "class"; "White Knuckles" is a sensitive and sympathetic investigation into the problem of wife-beating, unforgiving in its contempt for the attacker ("You don't have to take it so you just give in").
From the grand piano eloquence of "Shot With His Own Gun" to the echo-chamber rock of "Luxembourg" to the impassioned urgency of "Lover's Walk," Trust is the work of a man who not only has something to say, but knows how to get his point across.
Give a listen to "Luxembourg." The words are incomprehensible, the pace frenetic. When it's all over, you'll have no idea what Costello was talking about.
But it's a testimony to the man's talent that you just know it was important.