In the age of antibiotics, we don't have plagues anymore. Instead we have artists who perform the same function. One of them used to be Elvis Costello. You could tell by the bile in the aisles — here was the Great Bacterium.
Elvis! The name resonates with greatness. Elvis! People were offering a pound of flesh for a good seat at last Thursday's concert at the Orpheum. It was worth it. Elvis played one of the longest sets in his career for his Boston fans, twenty-nine songs in nearly two hours, including eight from the new disc, Trust.
At first, the lone figure in the harsh spotlight looked like anyone but Elvis Costello: a stocky, pasty-faced guy in a padded jacket and dark oversized glasses, maybe forty years old ... Roy Orbison? Or Joe Cocker, with those jerky, marionette-like gestures. At times, with his zig-zag receding hairline and odd, mincing dance steps, he could even have been a dead ringer for Dick Nixon.
Actually, the link with Nixon goes beyond the hairline. The man who was once the most powerful football fan in the world is currently enjoying a quiet rehabilitation among certain Fringe hip intellectual circles, a revival that Elvis, in aping some of the ex-Prexie's mannerisms, seems to be attuned to. With his high paranoid style and latent misogyny, Nixon paved the way for the contemporary rock and roll aesthetic. After all, he came from the same sort of desperate circumstances as most new wave stars, and it was only an accident of history that he never picked up a guitar. Born in another time and another place, he might have been Milhous Costello.
Trust reflects what might be called Costello's neo-Nixon mood. It includes all the same paranoid preoccupations of the earlier albums: spies go through your underwear in the laundromat, looking for clues; "Get out," Elvis warns, "before they get to watch your step." It's a universe that puts you immediately on the defensive — booby prizes become booby traps, emotions ricochet with lethal results, and the dominant color scheme is "white knuckles on black and blue skin."
But there's a new element on Trust — the banality of the quotidian, the shallow perversity of it all. If life can be dangerous, it can also be gross and tawdry, full of "chemical shit," "bad breath," ministers caught with hookers, and women gargling cologne. Elvis's singing style matches this shift in emphasis — there's less of the snarl, more of the whisper. Life's not evil, he's saying. It's more like a drooling wino cleaning your windshield with a filthy rag.
Which, for an artist, can be dangerous. The dominant emotion of Trust is not anger but fear; Elvis no longer wants to change things, he just wants to avoid them. He doesn't want to participate in love even to the extent of making sense of it — in Trust, there isn't any hope of organizing reality in any intelligible way. Lyrics are less central than before. "Pretty words," Elvis sings, "don't mean much anymore."
The answer, for Elvis, is just to play the music. The music is the statement now. He sings: "Try to look Italian through the musical Valium." "Looking Italian," from a glance at the album sleeve, means being like Frank Sinatra or Vic Damone — a crooner, a pure entertainer. Elvis's songwriting is more than up to that challenge. His development has been so startlingly rapid that the old songs in his repertoire Thursday night, like "Red Shoes" or "Watching the Detectives" or even the encore of "Pump It Up," sounded, without exception, flat and uninteresting, almost archaic by comparison. In Trust. Elvis has thoroughly subsumed all his incredibly diverse musical influences — early sixties pop, rockabilly, Motown/Stax, reggae, Cole Porter, C&W — more completely than before, so much so that the influences all but disappear. It's a totally original sound.
It helps that Elvis now has the best backup combo since the Band joined Dylan. The Attractions are as tight as a good champagne cork. Steve Nieve plays a variety of keyboard styles, from honky-tonk to pop to the sixties carnival Farfisa organ, with dazzling authority; Bruce Thomas continues to elaborate his boppy, richly textured bass line; Pete Thomas is a clever if not outstanding drummer. And then there's Marty Belmont, the Graham Parker and Rumour guitarist who joined the band when Nieve was in the hospital last year. With his blues-based, Hendrix-style leads, Belmont can add a new dimension to a song when he lets loose the way he did Thursday night on "Mystery Dance."
Elvis continues, more than ever, as our cultural garbageman, assuming all the musical styles and popular psychoses of the culture and yoking them into his own character. But if the goal was once to take on the culture in order to purge it of the poisons, that's no longer the case. In the end, it gets back to Nixon. There's a story in Henry Kissinger's memoirs about how he and his deputy, Joseph Sisco, were looking frantically for Nixon during the Jordanian crisis of 1971. They finally hunted him down in an alley in the basement of the Executive Office Building, bowling in his shirtsleeves, alone. He talked to them, but he wouldn't put down his bowling ball. For Nixon, it was looking Polish; for Elvis Costello, it's looking Italian. Either way, it means finding a place to hide. And who can blame them?