During a brief interview with late night talk show host Tom Snyder recently, Costello was asked if he had learned to "channel" the anger that was his trademark when he first dented the music scene in 1977. ("Have you matured?" was the way Tom Terrific put it. Responded Elvis, "No. I don't like that word. It sounds like something you'd say about cheese.")
It's not hard to guess why someone with Snyder's peculiar vantage point would think Costello has "matured" (read: Become safe for TV audiences). His sixth LP's 14 songs cover a wide range of musical styles — '50s rock 'n' roll, '60s pop and soul, country honky tonk, rockabilly, Tex-Mex, post-punk rock and even (with keyboardist Steve Nieve's incredible array of keyboard techniques) classical.
But several careful listenings (there's no other way: Costello never provides a lyric sheet) show that he's still scrutinizing social and sexual relationships, skillfully slicing them apart with stunning images and imaginative wordplay.
The opening cut, "Clubland," sets the LP's tone with its images of violence, entrapment, guilt and abandonment. Costello capably links sexual repression with right wing politics in "Strict Time" (which has a reggae lilt) and is especially devastating with his breathily intimate vocal on "Watch Your Step," which, with its warnings to nonconformists, is sure to become a Reagan Era standard.
Elsewhere Costello writes about love as hypocrisy ("New Lace Sleeves"); a path fraught with danger ("Lovers Walk"); emotional dissolution (the piano-voice Gothic drama "Shot With His Own Gun" and the countryish "Different Finger"); betrayal ("Fish 'N' Chip Paper"), and pathological physical abuse ("You'll Never Be a Man" and "White Knuckles"). As for future lovers, Costello begins the melancholy "Big Sister's Clothes" with "Sheep to the slaughter..."
All this isn't as dire as it sounds, and two raveups — "From a Whisper to a Scream" (a duet with Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook) and "Luxembourg" — even sound optimistic. A five-star winner.