I won't soon forget my first Elvis Costello concert. A debut album had already suggested the scope of his huge musical talent, but that record was like tea at Buckingham Palace compared to the raw, angry jolt of live performance. He really didn't look like the conquering-hero type — spindly, pigeon-toed stance, body clamped in a suit three sizes too small, egghead glasses. But he could rock, firing out tunes to his audience like so many machine-gun salvos, spitting images of twisted romance as one song slammed into the next without even a pause for breath. Entranced by the beat and spurred on by Elvis's sheer energy, the crowd quickly generated a kind of white-heat frenzy. Compared to Elvis Costello that night, Jake La Motta was just a raging bullfinch.
Then an odd thing happened. As Elvis revved into a climactic chorus of "Pump It Up," a girl fainted in front of the bandstand. In the general cacophony her swoon was hardly noticeable; yet Elvis stopped playing (the rest of the band kept riffing) and bent over the lip of the stage to help keep a modicum of order until the girl recovered and security personnel arrived. Situation finally in hand, Costello then leaped back into the tune without missing a beat, drove it to a furious finish, and then grimly stalked off the stage.
Three years have passed since that event, and five superb albums now mark Elvis Costello as one of rock's premier artists. Yet his puzzling character — by turns hostile and tender, misogynistic and courtly, hard and vulnerable — continues to baffle fans. Even his closely guarded personal life yields striking contradictions. After savaging superficial glamour in "This Year's Girl," for instance, Costello carried on a cross-continental affair with a fashion model. A leader in Britain's Rock Against Racism movement, he was publicly accused by singer Bonnie Bramlett of inciting a bar brawl with ugly racial epithets. Perhaps the best musical example of this dichotomy was Elvis's rendition of the Nick Lowe tune "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)?" — sincere flower-power sentiments that Costello imbued with a surly, almost menacing delivery.
Trust (Columbia), Costello's latest and most sophisticated album to date, virtually revels in these paradoxes. Even the title is ironic; most of the LP's fourteen songs examine the deceit and lack of faith which corrupt relationships. So is the music; Trust's playful melodies, bright-sounding production, and upbeat rhythms stand in cheerful relief to Costello's mordant themes. Like Bob Dylan, Elvis thrives on this tension between exhilaration and dread. But again like Dylan, his elastic singing style is quite capable of bridging both extremes.
Now, tales of tortured lovers, or even lovers' tortures, are hardly novel among contemporary songwriters. What's intriguing about Trust is the unremitting bleakness of Costello's vision. For Elvis, the battle between the sexes is not just a catchphrase, it's a literal description. Lovers are shot, beaten, haunted by impotence and insensitivity, and usually faced with some terrible Hobson's choice. Or as Elvis sweetly croons on "Big Sister's Clothes": "Sheep to the slaughter / Oh, I thought this must be love. / All your sons and daughters / In the stranglehold of a kid glove."
Scary stuff. Surely not everyone's idea of a good time, or even of a good love song. Indeed, there are still skeptics around who claim that Costello only appeals to music critics because he looks so much like them. Yet the list of entertainers who've covered Costello's songs is an impressive one — from pub-rocker Dave Edmunds to Southern "boogiemen" the Outlaws to pop chanteuse Linda Ronstadt, the latter placing three Elvis originals on her last album. (Ever the gallant, Elvis called Linda's versions "sheer torture.") Even country legend George Jones recently recorded a duet with Costello, and in Nashville circles that's a tribute.
Clearly Elvis is more than just another angry face. His smoldering intensity may exemplify punk, but his music consistently transcends it. By now, he's become so adept at harmonizing country, r&b, blues, and even Tin Pan Alley balladry into his songs that the results are at once complex and disarming. And on Trust he's produced some of the most compelling imagery this side of Dylan and Joni Mitchell, personal vignettes brewed with strong, albeit bitter, emotions. Costello's overall world view — doom — may bring you down, but his honesty and insight are ultimately uplifting. For that, at least, Elvis's music, like his name, will endure. Trust me.