Elvis Costello has never tried to pass himself off as a nice fellow. He's a scrawny, bespectacled former computer programmer from England with a nasal voice some people take an immediate dislike to, and if there's a single image or theme that ties his work together, it's his vision of individual sexual relationships as fascist societies in miniature. He hasn't visited the United States in two years, despite the top 20 success of his Get Happy!! album early in 1980, and since he doesn't give interviews or even issue press handouts, it's difficult to tell whether he's had better things to do or simply doesn't like it here.
Now Mr. Costello is back. On Saturday, he begins a three-night stand at the Palladium that has long been sold out, and Columbia is releasing his new album, Trust, this week. He still isn't talking; perhaps he's saving his breath. In the last year alone, he released two albums with 20 songs on each of them, almost all of which were originals. Trust introduces 14 more Costello songs and they're as alive with word-play, wit, craft and perception as "Alison," "Radio, Radio," "Accidents Will Happen" and the other remarkable songs that launched his career in 1977 and 1978.
Mr. Costello refuses to provide lyric sheets for his albums, and his songs aren't always easy to decipher. But they're usually worth the effort; when he's at his best, Mr. Costello dissects social and sexual relationships with penetrating intelligence and with a command of the English language that allows him to be playful and punning and utterly serious, all at the same time. Most of Trust finds Mr. Costello at his best, but then, so have most of his albums. One may or may not like his singing or his attitude, but it's difficult to fault his talents as a tunesmith. Considering the sheer quantity of his work, its consistent high quality is extraordinary.
The Attractions, Mr. Costello's band, specialize in buoyant poprock with echoes of Motown and 60's soul. But on Trust they have expanded their range, both stylistically and emotionally. Steve Nieve's piano arpeggios ripple through the music, trailing allusive fragments of Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov and rock-and-roll stylists too numerous to mention and, as a unit, The Attractions sound fuller and richer than on their most recently recorded album with Mr. Costello, Get Happy!! There are some lovely vocal harmonies and Mr. Costello's singing is his best yet — breathily intimate on "Watch Your Step" and the wonderful "New Lace Sleeves," raw as rockabilly on "Lovers Walk," which is set to a pounding Bo Diddley beat, and suitably pungent on the album's pure honky-tonk number, "Different Finger." Mr. Costello isn't attempting to turn pop music into high art, but he continues to believe in it as a vehicle for communicating complex ideas and multiple viewpoints. His songs are simple enough to whistle on the street, but they're food for thought, too. That makes them, and him, doubly valuable.