"When they told us we were coming to Washington I didn't realize how close to Hollywood we'd get," Elvis Costello said as he began his show at Ritchie Coliseum last week with a song from his brand new Trust album. Throughout the show Costello was humorous, talkative, and pleasant; not at all like the sullen, bitter man who performed forty-five-minute sets and refused to do encores when he toured America two years ago.
While Costello's new amiable nature may be attributed to changes in his personal life, it is obvious that Costello, who has not had a real hit record since 1978's Armed Forces, is trying very hard to do well on this tour. He and his band The Attractions have put together a near perfect show consisting of the very best material from his first five albums and over one-half dozen songs from Trust. The show is over ninety minutes long including two encores that feature some of Costello's best material ("Chelsea," "Oliver's Army," "Watching the Detectives," and "Pump it Up") as well as two classic Little Richard songs. This show is certainly much better than anyone who has followed Costello over the years would ever expect.
Unfortunately, for Costello this tour would be much more successful if the album he is promoting, Trust, was better. As it stands now, regardless of how exciting and powerful his show is, those who rush out and buy his new album will most likely be disappointed. Trust is not a bad album, but it is the weakest album he's released to date. Costello may be too great a talent to put out a truly bad record but he's not above mediocrity. Nothing on Trust grabs you the way "Radio Radio" did on This Year's Model or "Chelsea" from Taking Liberties. Even the best songs on Trust, "Lovers Walk," "Pretty Words," and "Watch Your Step" only stand out after many listenings, and "Big Sister's Clothes" and "Strict Time," which appeared to be strong well-structured songs during last week's concert, sound flat and lifeless on Trust.
Part of the problem with Trust is the new direction that Costello's sound has taken. Gone is the full, punchy organ and guitar sound that dominated Get Happy and Armed Forces. Now most of the songs on Trust are built around simple acoustic piano chords which give a much mellower and sparser sound to the record. As always, Costello's songs are built on the pure emotion of the lyrics and vocals and this new clean sound detracts from the emotional impact of the songs.
Right now Elvis Costello needs a hit single and a strong album to put him back on top where he belongs, but neither the single "Clubland" nor the album Trust will be able to do this for him. Perhaps after this current tour and a vacation Costello will come back with an album to top both Get Happy and This Year's Model. And with a songwriter like Costello, that's not really expecting too much.