Melody Maker, January 24, 1981

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Melody Maker

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The physical art of conversation

Elvis Costello & The Attractions / Trust

Allan Jones

Trust arrives like a flurry of punches, pinning back your ears as it pins you to the ropes; ducking one punch, you walk into another.

Some of the individual blows might lack a decisive impact, but the final combination puts you down for the count. Time was when Elvis would've left you on your knees, bleeding into your tears. Trust holds out its hand, hauls you back on your feet. Costello's vision is as fierce as ever, but the malice has gone; he can still rage, but he no longer scolds.

Compare the cover of Trust with the sleeve of This Year's Model or even the furtive smirk of Get Happy!!. Elvis looks less malignant: he used to be disgusted, now he really looks amused. Having his albums around the house and playing them so often is still like having someone's abrasive conscience as a lodger, though. No doubt, Elvis will remain too acerbic for comfortable popular consumption.

This could explain the outrageous lack of notice suffered by "Clubland" (presently raging up the chart with an anvil around its neck). Taut contemporary lyricism set to an epic beat, "Clubland" is one of Costello's finest ever shots, and works effectively as a giddy introduction to Trust, its epic sweep indicative of Nick Lowe's clean, spacious production.

The single's apparent chart failure is a clue to Costello's erratic commercial success. "Clubland" is just too close to the bone; it has the muddy impetus of actuality. It's a perfect example of Costello panning across the social landscape and zooming in to expose the devious twists of our common lives, the duplicities, emotional conspiracies and petty humiliations that eventually provoke extreme reactions. Here, it's the flight into crime, looking for status, independence, recognition.

"Clubland" is also a brilliant rock-noir song (up there with "Watching The Detectives" and John Cale's "Gun"), its drama drawn from its atmosphere, its sinister shadows rather than any clear narrative progression. It bristles with marvellous images; "Clubland" has more quote-able lines than most albums have good songs.

And that points to another of Costello's problems as far as some confused spectators and innocent bystanders are concerned: he's so damned prolific. His songs are full of ideas, and there are so many songs; 20 on Get Happy!!, another 14 here: it makes people so suspicious. Someone must be getting duped somewhere along the line, surely?

The simple truth is that Costello does have a lot to say, and his talent is articulate enough to express every fleeting emotion, image or thought that attracts his attention, to turn them into songs that are often uncommonly memorable. Bob Geldof has a similarly inquisitive mind, but more often than is good for him he turns his fleeting notions into "good copy," eye-catching quotes, and gets crucified. Elvis keeps his lip clipped, commits his energies to song writing and gets away with murder.

A professional songwriter, heir to a tradition broader than most rock 'n' roll writers can accommodate, Costello writes well about virtually anything. His songs are rarely as confessional as they appear. Hence the versatility of his writing, the variety of musical settings and styles he deploys. He's an investigative songwriter, probably the best in rock. He owes allegiance only to his own vocation as a songwriter: that's maybe another reason he worries some people.

You have to advance towards his songs; they know where they stand, and they stay there. If you want to know more about them — and by implication him — it's your initiative, pal. Get inside them, do some work; start thinking. You don't even have to agree with what he's saying. Costello's songs seem to like nothing better than a good argument: they're meant to sting you into reacting.

It's this quality that convinces you that there's a real voice on the end of the line; someone who's put some real thought into the grooves; someone who treats his songs as a dialogue. His best songs are examples, perhaps, of what he describes on "You'll Never Be A Man" as "the physical art of conversation."

To the extent that his songs are genuinely crammed with provocative notions, you could sympathise with Jake Riviera when he says Elvis doesn't do interviews because all he has to say is contained in his songs. You can believe that after finishing an album like Trust, Costello's got nothing left in his mouth but the sweat on his gums.

Trust is the work of someone who takes himself and his audience very seriously. He won't be looked up to, he won't talk down to you. There are familiar themes pursued on Trust, but increasingly his emotional concerns are placed in a broader social context.

Fortunately, we're spared the glib social ironies of Armed Forces, the flippant wisecracks and cheap shots of "Senior Service" and "Goon Squad." The points here are harder won, the observations are more touching, tinged with a bruised humour, more human. It's the concerned commentary of, say, "Opportunity," than the glossy tirades of Armed Forces; there's less of that album's disgust, more of the last record's compassion.

"You'll Never Be A Man" has steely tenderness that three years ago would've appeared as bitter rage. A study of someone Costello clearly thinks fails to stand up to the world, it begins with a stark staccato rhythm, opens up to a glorious, tumbling chorus that's currently among my favourite moments in his music. "You'll never be a man," Costello implores with moving conviction, "when you're half a woman and you're half awake / with a face full of tears and a chemical shake / Are you so superior, are you in such pain / are you made out of porcelain..." It would be fanciful, probably, to imagine Elvis confronting his own image in a cracked mirror.

Set to the same discreet melody as "Secondary Modern," side one's closing cut "Watch Your Step" is another current favourite. Its premonition of universal conspiracies, in which families spy on each other, and are in turn watched over by a superior authority is familiar from Armed Forces (notably "Green Shirt"). Initially, Costello is wry, almost casual.

The mood, however, grows darker over the closing verses as he anticipates the mindlessly violent consequence of brutal intolerance: "Broken noses hang on the walls / backslapping drinkers cheer the heavyweight brawl / so punch drunk, they don't understand at all... I'll send you all my regards / you're so tough, you're so hard / listen to the hammers fallin' in the breaker's yard / you'd better watch your step."

Costello's voice is intimate, as if he's singing over your shoulder. Steve Nieve's keyboards glow, glistening pinpoints of light in the growing darkness. The rhythm section's disciplined restraint is admirable. This is one of Costello's most poignant performances.

Invasion of privacy and the manipulation of the individual by outside agencies (one of Costello's greatest fears) has been approached earlier on "Strict Time," a shuddering spasm of a track, spurred on by Pete Thomas's crackling drumming and great zooming bass lines. The lyric finds Costello effortlessly sharp: "There's a hand on a wire that leads to my mouth / I can hear you knockin' but I'm not comin' out / Don't want to be a puppet or a ventriloquist / 'Cos there's no ventilation on the critical list..."

Inevitably, some of Costello's shots only wound where others kill. "Lovers Walk," for instance, indulges the current vogue for ethno-pneumatic percussion thrashing. It sounds dramatic, with Pete Thomas giving his kit a hell of a kicking and Bruce Thomas plucking steel cable bass as Nieve stabs at the ivories and Elvis intones a belligerent litany. It seems up to the minute, but off the mark.

"Luxembourg" is another roaring juggernaut, with great battering drums and a loony Elvis vocal, drenched in Fifties' echo: it's not major Costello, but great fun anyway. "From A Whisper To A Scream" also finds the Attractions with their sleeves up and their hair down, with Elvis, trading verses with Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook and Martin Belmont (on loan from the Rumour) adding real rough-house guitar: a real bar-room brawl, this.

"Different Finger" is Elvis nodding toward country music. A direct descendant of "Stranger In The House" and a distant relative of "Motel Matches," it's further evidence of his formidable range. As good as anything heard recently from Nashville, it lacks only a Billy Sherrill string arrangement skating across the horizon.

The album's least penetrating moments come towards the end of side two. "Shot With His Own Gun" is great drama live, I suspect, with Elvis's voice set against Nieve's thunderous piano accompaniment. Here it sounds oddly hollow, tries too hard to make an impact. It's coldly impressive, but hardly as moving as, say, "Just A Memory," which had a similar setting.

"Fish 'n' Chip Paper" briefly recalls "Moods For Moderns." It's an obvious idea, intermittently enlivened by a smattering of clever lines, but I think it really just proves that you can't have your coke and snort it.

That leaves us with four tracks. With its overlapping vocal effects, military references and abrupt gear-shifts, I originally had "Pretty Words" pegged as a hangover from Armed Forces. Carried by an elegantly flowing melody, it's more teasingly sardonic than any of the callous asides found on the earlier album; it's also got one of the best lines on this LP — "there's not much choice / between a cruel mouth and a careless voice." The bitterness revealed in the closing verse is tempered, but not diluted, by Costello's laconic vocal. The point's more effectively made by his devious restraint.

Opening side two, "New Lace Sleeves" is an immediate candidate for the higher echelons of Costello's repertoire. Built around a halting rhythm nudge, the song opens with a painfully accurate account of a soured love-affair: "Bad lovers, face to face in the morning / shouting apologies and polite regrets / slow dances that left no one enough / average glances and indiscreet yawnings / good manners and bad breath get you nowhere ..."

Costello's vocal is masterful; closer to Frank Sinatra than any rock 'n' roll voice, he virtually croons the lyric; his phrasing coasting over the melody, snapping at lines, drawing them out. Voice and writing reach a peak with this verse: "The salty lips of the socialite sisters / with their continental fingers / that have never seen working blisters / oh, I know they have their problems — I wish I was one of them."

Costello wriggles through the lines and rhymes, drawing out the greatest emphasis, the final line driven in with a slow twist; like a knife in the side, gleefully malevolent, savouring the careful ambiguity.

The musical dynamics of "White Knuckles" are familiar — the Attractions negotiating a distinctive, thrusting arrangement with an effortless confidence that makes most groups sound positively clubfooted — but its tone is uncharacteristic. An excursion into the land of territory of domestic friction most successfully charted recently by Squeeze, "Knuckles" has Costello exploring the frustrations of both victim and antagonist with a savage clarity: "White knuckles came down to put the frighteners on / I believe she's the one that he's got his heart set on ... losing face with the boys while she's whispering in his ear / never found out why they called it laughing gear - white knuckles on black and blue skin / didn't mean to hit her, but she kept laughing..."

The rhythm of the lyric is reminiscent of Chris Difford; the couple could even be Difford's "Vicky Verky," grown up and at each other's throats. "White Knuckles" should join "From A Whisper To A Scream" as a contender for the next single.

Finally: "Big Sister's Clothes," an ominous echo of "Night Rally."

"Sheep to the slaughter," Elvis swoons over a light, jazz-inflected shuffle, popping bass and twanging guitar, "all your sons and daughters / in a stranglehold with a kid's glove... with a hammer on the slap and tickle / and the goods and the garments / with all the style and finesse in the purchase of armaments / passion went out of fashion / that's all your concern meant..."

A brief snatch of accordion (?) filters through the stark mix; the song fades, a nightmare vision in a little over two minutes, a sombre conclusion.

If there are such dark days ahead, maybe only Trust will see you through.

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Melody Maker, January 24, 1981


Allan Jones reviews Trust.


Also includes a double-page spread advertisement for Trust.

Images

1981-01-24 Melody Maker page 18 clipping 02.jpg
Clippings.

1981-01-24 Melody Maker cover.jpg
Cover.

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