Elvis Costello is a man you wouldn't want to meet. The anger expressed in his music, the stories of barroom fist fights with fellow musicians and his hostility toward the press have all served the image of a highly intense, unpleasant individual who probably sits alone in his room at night pulling the legs off grasshoppers.
He is a difficult artist to write about. Thousands of words have been devoted to analyzing Costello's last five albums and attempting to penetrate his psyche.
Personally, I couldn't care less about his nasty personality, his supposedly threatening misogyny (after all, he despises both sexes equally), his hatred for our country, or even that he wears stupid-looking glasses. The bottom line is that Costello writes great songs.
Costello isn't stingy with these songs, either. So far, they fill six albums and Trust is his third L.P. within 12 months. Resentful critics predict his inevitable artistic decline, waiting to pounce. They will be disappointed with this release, as it simply upholds Costello's standard of quality song writing.
As with his last albums, Trust contains both naggingly catchy rock songs and slow, slightly spooky ballads. It is unusual for me to be partial to the latter, but the slower numbers on Trust are the perfect showcases for Costello's talent.
One of the best of these is "Watch Your Step." Costello sings it in a soft, yet very commanding and full voice, accompanied only by an organ and a steady beat. His enunciation here is perfect, causing the casual listener to stop whatever he is doing and focus all attention on the song from start to finish.
On this song, Costello speaks of violence in a calm, almost psychopathic tone. "You think you're young and original," the artist sings. "You'd better get out before..." It is disturbing that we never hear the threat that follows this line.
One of the rewards of Costello's music is that it can be listened to on several levels. "You'll Never Be a Man," for instance, is a pretty pop song, recalling the mid-60s. It is a nice tune to hear in your living room over coffee, providing you don't listen too closely.
The lyrics reveal a hostile, insecure man who is apparently trying his hand at seduction. Judging from his description of "half a woman and half awake" he is not having much success. Yet, them is something amusing and appealing about a man who calls a sexual come-on a "proposition for the invasion of your premises" and invites the woman to "give yourself away and find the fake in me."
Costello's lyrics have often been compared to Bob Dylan's, which seems strange since the two artists' musical styles are so different. But both musicians will take the English language to any length for effect, resulting in words that either jump out and bite you in the face, or fall miserably flat. Costello, like Dylan, seems to desperately spit out image after image, hoping one of them will succeed. Many of them do.
Costello, however, has proven himself to he a master of the melody line, and this backs him up when his lyrics fail As he rhymes "conversation" with "aggravation," I am so caught up in the flow of the tune, I don't have time to flinch.
Costello's faster and simpler rock numbers seem more one-dimensional on first listening. "Lovers Walk" sounds curiously like the old R 'n' B number, "Not Fade Away," and nothing excites my ears more than the pulse of trashy drumming. The song bounces and jerks along with a string of metaphors that only the careful listener would recognize as cynical, not sweet.
The only song on Trust that fails is "Shot With His Own Gun," in which Costello plays the part of the piano-man and sounds like an over-anxious Billy Joel. Not much should be made of this, however; one bad song is excusable on an album with 13 strong ones.
Above all, it is this consistency that I admire Costello for. If he must act like a depressed and hostile jerk to maintain this record of quality, that is his problem, not mine. I will continue to listen to his albums and he will continue to hold my heart in his teeth.