Stanford Daily, February 12, 1981
Trust: Elvis Costello cuts hair
"Don't say a word / Don't say anything / Don't say a word / I'm not even listening"
Despite that indication. Elvis Costello is finally trying to come to terms with his audience on his new album, Trust. From a look at the album cover, one can see that he has regained two things that were pretty much put aside after his first album: his crewcut and his sense of humour. On the cover, the newly-shorn Elvis seems about to respond to someone who has just asked him if he really was the rock star Donny Osmond. The inner sleeves have the same kind of self-parodying humour as the cover and the title. One side shows Elvis reclining in a frame chair wearing a slouch hat and overcoat, trying very hard to look like Humphrey Bogart, and the other has Elvis playing in front of a massive, Buddy Holly-style orchestra. Despite the lighter touch shown on this album, however, the content of Elvis' songs hasn't really changed. On his first album he told us he "used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused." Whatever it says about the world now, he's certainly amused.
After Get Happy!! where the music was pared down as much as possible, and two of the three new songs on Taking Liberties, which sounded as though they had been recorded during a fire drill and had been backed by an anvil chorus, Elvis's style seemed to be moving away from the mainstream towards a "less-is-best" feeling. Trust, however, is a definite return to full instrumentation, without any loss of inspiration.
This album is very much geared to the public, yet is beyond any charge of "sellout" (Elvis's last few albums were criticized as not being "accessible"). As if to prove that this album is meant for the public, Elvis opens with his new single, "Clubland." In this song, which, like a lot of his songs, could have used a lyric sheet, he depicts the singles scene. He makes it seem both frantic and secure, a refuge and a hell "They lead you half way to paradise, they lead you half way to bliss" he sings, never making it quite clear if that's all one should expect.
The next song. "Lovers Walk" is pinned to a writhing, conga-beat, and shimmies its way through a list of things that lovers — those silly fools — do: "Lovers strut, lovers stroll, lovers leap / Lovers late, lovers wait, making promises they can't keep." A nearly inaudible piano line keeps the song stuttering along until the end, where a seemingly exasperated Elvis asks "Will you look what love has done?"
"You'll Never Be a Man," supposedly directed at Bonnie Bramlett, with whom Elvis got into a much-publicized bar fight, is killing with its kindness. Condescendingly, Elvis asks "Are you so superior? / Are you in such pain / Are you made out of porcelain?" Despite obvious putdowns and references, this song may not be that simple. Elvis also realizes the power — and possibly the responsibility — that his fame has given him. "I've got the password / I've got persuasion / A proposition for invasion of your privacy / Give yourself away and find the fake in me." Perhaps this song is letting us know Elvis will think twice before shooting his mouth off while drunk.
The next two songs, "Pretty Words" (which don't mean much anymore) and "Strict Time" are alike in that they both have a fairly downhearted view of the world. In "Pretty Words" the daily newspaper offers "No words of consolation / Just cartoons and chitterchatter." "Strict Time" shows a world where the best advice is to "Toughen up, toughen up / Keep your lip buttoned up." and where "The boys are straight-laced / The girls are frigid / The talk is fruitless / And the rules are rigid."
"Luxembourg," which follows, breaks out of the sad view of the world simply through its energy. A rave up of the first order, it seems to have no intelligible lines, but has an overall, dead-serious "cheer up or get out" message: "You're talking and yawning / You didn't listen to a thing you heard / You're gonna stop all of your moaning / Or you might wake up in Luxembourg," the significance of which is hidden somewhere in the verses.
The first side ends with "Watch Your Step," arguably the best song on the album. Carried along on a slowly undulating bass line and supported by a high organ melody, it unwinds and flows through imagery and dry wit. "Every day is full of fun..." he sings, "They're making heroes / out of fall guys / They say it's good for business." The last line is delivered with calm surprise, and gives the song direction.
Only two songs on the album do not really work: "Different Finger," another of Elvis's attempts to record a definitive country song, which falls short because it does not mention prisons or freight trains, just an extramarital affair, and "Shot With His Own Gun," a highly melodramatic song that walks a dangerous line between sad sincerity and sickly pathos. Over a slow piano backing, Elvis sings of a dirty sexual affair: "What's on his mind now is anyone's guess, losing his touch with each caress ... Spending every evening looking so appealing / He comes without warning, leaves without feeling." Here, his very cleverness makes the concept of the song itself seem shallow.
The rest of the second side is solid, including a rock duet with Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze (Who opened for Elvis on his recent tour) about the life in clubs, called "From a Whisper to a Scream." Another hard rock song is "White Knuckles" which happens to be the story of a marriage — or an affair — that ended when the man started beating the woman: "White knuckles on black and blue skin / He didn't mean to hit her but she kept laughing." What makes this song unusual is that it is told from different viewpoints: from the man's — "He needs her like the axe needs the turkey" — and the woman's, as when she goes back to her family and they tell her they knew all along. In the end, Elvis observes. "there's always someone new to toy with."
In "New Lace Sleeves," Elvis creates a striking image of the morning after: "Bad lovers face to face in the morning / Shy apologies add polite regret." He goes on to decry the lives of the rich and the gentry, and comes to the end accusation "You know you have been captured / you feel so civilized / and you look so pretty in your new lace sleeves."
Before the album ends, Elvis gives shows of both good humour and old-time disgust. In "Fish and Chip Paper" he says "The Sunday morning dandruff turns out to be confetti / and the cost of living in sin would make a poor man of Paul Getty." The song follows the life of sin through all its facets, and the chorus pops up to urge it on: "You better speak up now, it won't mean a thing later / yesterday's news is tomorrow's fish and chip paper."
"Big Sister s Clothes," the last song is produced by Elvis (instead of Nick Lowe, who produced the rest of the album) and shows Elvis's touch both in the production, in which strange and out of place noises drift through the background, and most certainly in the lyrics. "Sheep to the slaughter," it starts, "Oh, I thought this must be love!" In a sad, resigned voice, he tells of all the phoniness and pretense that goes on in a romance. Wryly, he points out the important things in love: "With a hammer for the 'slap and tickle' / And the girls with their comments / With all the style and finesse / And the purchase of armaments." In the end, Elvis admits that "It's easier to say I love you / than yours sincerely, I suppose / All little sisters / Like to try on big sister's clothes."
Elvis Costello has made a long step back towards his audience, and he has done it without compromising his views. The "new" Elvis, a little more calm, a little less angry, a little more witty, and a lot more experienced, is making the best music of his career. If he could only learn to hold his liquor ...
The Stanford Daily, February 12, 1981