Newsweek, February 23, 1981

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Riding the new wave

Jim Miller

Growing up is the scourge of rock. A form built on rituals of revolt, it flourishes by exploiting our desire to flout workaday restraints. As Jim Morrison of the Doors once screamed, "We want the world and we want it now!" But every performer who caters to this subversive hunger must eventually confront the problem of what to do once his own raw impulses have been played out. Can he refine his instincts without diminishing their intensity and appeal? Can he develop a style without losing the spark behind so much great rock? These are challenges facing Elvis Costello and the Clash — the two acts of enduring prominence produced by the eruption of British punk and new wave in 1977.

Costello popped into view as a gaunt and sullen young man, brimming with resentment at women, journalists, bureaucrats, spies — anyone who might violate his privacy. Three years ago he told Newsweek that "I'm not even sure what I want, but that's not the point; it's that I want it now" — a symptomatically vague echo of Jim Morrison's global impatience. But on his recent tour of America, Costello showed audiences a different face. Preceded by reports of an unwonted amiability — he was smiling onstage — he certified his new look, well fed and serene, in a nationally televised interview with Tom Snyder. Yes, he reported, he was hoping to present a more complete picture of human beings; yes, he actually likes his dad, a dance-band singer. But he drew the line at being congratulated for his maturity. "I'm not in the business to mature," he sweetly snapped. "It sounds like some sort of cheese."

By disciplining this quick wit and applying it to his work, Elvis Costello has fashioned his own emblematic stance — an acid moodiness conveyed through music of blunt economy and pleasing nuance. Though his sinewy voice lacks range, he is a stylist of surprising sensitivity, with a fine sense of timing and a sculptured way with diction. His band, the Attractions, shows a similar poise, playing complex lines with punch and conviction.

On Trust, his sixth album for Columbia, Costello softens the edge of his rockers and adds emotional breadth to his mid-tempo ballads. Once again he sings of domination and deceit, blurring the lyrics to leave only a few lines exposed: "Pretty words don't mean much anymore." But beneath the caustic wordplay and customary spite, he betrays some vulnerability. For the first time, Elvis Costello sounds more hurt than angry.

At the heart of this extraordinary album are two stunning miniatures. On "Watch Your Step" he builds a complex mood out of the title's admonition, turning the song into a bittersweet tribute to suspicion. (Trust, indeed.) "New Lace Sleeves," on the other hand, comments cryptically on "bad lovers." In the first verse, we seem to glimpse a hooker — or is it a housewife? — waking up with her lover; in the second verse, we find a socialite trysting with her proletarian paramour. In one verse the man might be a dignitary; in the other he is clearly a commoner who covets wealth. The melody, a catwalk over skittish accents, crescendos to a refrain aimed at a woman seductively garbed in new lace sleeves: "You say the teacher never told you anything but white lies / But you never see the lies that you believe." When he sings these lines, Costello uses his falsetto to lift up and softly flutter two words: "lies" and "believe." For a few uncanny moments, bliss seems to hang in the balance between fools and whores — and you realize that this music, in under four minutes, has taken you someplace altogether odd. Out of such moments, great artists can make careers — and, so far, Elvis Costello is one of them.

Some think the Clash belong in the same league. Like Costello, they arrived with a sneer, winning fame during the heyday of British punk when they briefly rivaled the Sex Pistols as voices of the "blank generation." Their stock has since fallen in England, but some American aficionados now consider them to be the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band. As if to secure that title, the group last year released "London Calling," a two-record set that tried to integrate their vehement pummeling into a venerable tradition by canvassing abroad range of classic rock styles.

Now comes Sandinista! (Epic), a three-record set that fills two and a half hours with agitprop sermonizing, urban chatter, echoed noodling, all afloat in an inky mix that pulses with a crazy, compelling, distracted energy. When ham-tongued lead singer Joe Strummer isn't struggling with genres beyond his grasp — gospel, blues, reggae, dub, rap, in short, every black idiom essayed on this album — the band slashes through some bracing rock. The best track, "Police on My Back," written by the Jamaican singer Eddy Grant, is played with choppy force, the guitars swarming behind the lyric, which has a refrain of ringing clarity: "What have I done?"

Unfortunately, the strained seriousness of the band's own material too often sets Strummer to yammering. "Washington Bullets" rehearses some of imperialism's greatest hits, from the Bay of Pigs to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Besides including incongruous gringo impressions of happy Latinos (Sandinista rebels, it seems), it has one jarring couplet: "For Castro is a color, is a redder than red / Those Washington bullets want Castro dead."

In these conservative times, one would like to cheer signs of opposition — but just what is the message of this music? When Elvis Costello sings of sadism, the violence seems firsthand; when the Clash hymn class conflict, it sounds exotic, faintly ridiculous — a cartoon of guerrilla macho. For all the genuflections to "Capital," their views haven't progressed much beyond the crude brawling of the first and best Clash anthem: "White riot! I wanna riot. White riot! A riot of my own."

"White Riot" had the virtue of being a throwaway. Sandinista! does not. In its own free-form way, it is an attempt to puff up a flat pose with a lot of political hot air. When music so slight balloons into grand, sweeping statements, and when otherwise sensible listeners then cheer the rhetoric, we may draw two conclusions: fans hungry for radical heroes are clutching at straws, and one band of great repute is in a very sorry state, torn between professing a half-baked world view and banging out some good dumb licks.


Newsweek, February 23, 1981

Jim Miller reviews Trust and Sandinista!.


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Page scan.

Photo by Lynn Goldsmith.
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Cover and contents page.
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