Elvis Costello naming an album Trust is a little like Anita Bryant naming one Make Mine Gay. It's a helluva cheeky title coming from the world's leading misogynist.
But I should have known. Applying any modicum of insight surely would have made it evident that Elvis intended to sing about the abuse of trust, the lack of trust, the unwilling extension of trust, or anything at all rather than trust in any positive humanitarian sense. Let's not break with tradition here.
Which isn't quite a fair thing to say, since Trust is Elvis' finest album since This Year's Model. That isn't because of the lyrical content, though; Costello still can't love a woman without wishing he had better sense, nor can he watch any given social sham without letting us know he sees through it all.
No one else in rock 'n' roll could get by with this much indignation or grudging romantic angst and still be listened to. It's a privilege earned by genius, unimpeachable evidence of the man's artistic power. The greater the artist, the larger his margin of safety; the greater his skill, the more personal be can become without seeming so, and the more he can dress up his own perceptions with enough sartorial splendor to make everybody still want to watch the show.
This time Costello has draped his acerbic commentary with a whole new stock of arresting textures and sleek cuts that bound about whimsically in the demilitarized zone between chic and cheek. The crowning accomplishment of Trust is that there is a pure joy in listening to the man work, apart from all of the wit and pith of the lyrics, aside even from their impact or insight.
Costello sings better than ever on "New Lace Sleeves," "Watch Your Step," "Pretty Words," and "From a Whisper to a Scream." At times he positively croons, sending his voice on an extended tour of vocal range and inflection. The carefully-enunciated assurance of "Watch Your Step," cooly ominous in its delivery, loads enough credibility into your-time-will-come lyrics to keep them from being eloquently hollow.
"New Lace Sleeves" is as charismatic as anything Costello has conjured, with Bruce Thomas filling holes with rumbling, nervous brasswork and Costello sending out quavering guitar vibes over heavy backbeat drumming. Elvis' vocals shine like Grandma's brass spittoon, slithering deliciously around the lyrics, ending phrases with upturned flourishes, measuring smooth deliberation into each syllable and note.
"From a Whisper to a Scream" is even more delightful, as Elvis duets with Glenn Tilbrook in a vocal hang-gliding contest that excels even "Oliver's Army" for sheer sensual charisma. "Different Finger" finds Costello going country with a voice that sounds like Buddy Holly grafted onto Merle Haggard.
Musically, the album is impeccable. Steve Nieve outdoes himself on keyboards, pounding home glittering piano accompaniments in rockers like "You'll Never Be a man," oozing out soaring organ airs in "Watch Your Step," and concocting ingenuously melodramatic funeral parlor music for "Shot With His Own Gun." Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas create whatever mood Elvis demands with unaffected ease.
The moods are mostly custom-fit for the lyrics, which are blessed with the usual Costello command of language. One by one, Costello trashes snooty highbrows ("Clubland"), writers ("Pretty Words," where he is actually heard to say, "Pretty words don't mean much anymore / I don't mean to be mean much anymore"), patriotic indoctrination British Empire-style ("New Lace Sleeves"), marital brutality ("White Knuckles" ), and emotional transience ("Fish 'n' Chip Paper").
Almost all of the lyrics decry the abuse of trust — in romantic relationships, in social institutions, even in oneself when it is abandoned in lieu of emotional transports and stop-gap quickie supplies of fake romance glossed over with pretension in the desperate search for self-respect
But Trust is not as uncompromisingly judgmental as Costello's previous efforts, and for that reason it is his most admirable album. He is still cynical enough to make Kafka seem an optimist, but there are periodic suggestions of compassion and even empathy.
"White Knuckles" is the album's finest tune because Elvis doesn't treat the brutality as just a nasty old atrocity to be criticized and abandoned. The issue isn't that shallow, nor is the adultery in "Different Finger" or the emotional pretense in "Big Sister's Clothes," but they would have been treated shallowly (if wittily) on previous albums.
Elvis Costello is still not a loveable human being, but he has learned that valuing moral integrity and despising lack of it is not enough. I think he is taking a few tentative steps towards trying to understand. He is growing, and for an artist already so talented, what more can we ask?