New Musical Express, January 24, 1981

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Trust never sleeps

Ian Penman

Elvis Costello And The Attractions

...Turn to the right!

Paradigm one: the noveau hi-fashion sub-culture has within it and its mandarin margins a lot of foppish, foolish notions of "creative" sophistication. The posh and their prudently acute camp followers would-be cameleons and critics) are searching for the ultimate — therefore unrealisable — aesthetic aether in which to prance.

The mystification with which these creatures of untroubled leisure dabble is based on the over-valuation of (the) Fashion Life as (the) authentic escape from the reality which produced them — which is lived (or lived on) by the unfortunate masses. Their particular mystery dance is tedious rather than dangerous — i.e., Strange is no Rotten. It elaborates as far as the assumption that Real Life (in the UK) can only remain as it is — the real problem is the cosmetic requirements of their unproblematic little abstract world, in which new needs are always, have always to be satisfied: an epic in direct opposition to the possibility of useful cultural change.

Various excuses thrive. The best of them manipulates "class" roots — reifying the noting-down of tendencies (toward funk, toward drink, whatever) as the description of the real dream behind the screen. The worst of them just prays and plays for vanguard status (guess who). The best and worse share a commitment: the idealisation of a space-in-itself in which various shifts and adjustments of dress, eyebrow, tone, titfer, etc., take place and are noted. No one else save those leading the Fashion Life is accorded any luminosity. The furious fop's exit with respect to real problems and solutions is always the last clever rehearsed Wilde-ish aphorism he had in his head.

The nova clan doesn't recognise the dreariness, the untidiness of life as a problem. The problem is this week's escape route. The repressive, challenging complexity of the social world can only be dealt with — the exquisite ones tell us — by transcendental means. Turn to grey...

Paradigm two: "have you ever been had in Clubland?"

Trust jump starts single-first like Get Happy!! did almost exactly 12 months ago (and like so many Motown LPs did so many times before). "Clubland" is as appropriate a taster for the new tract as "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" was then — a jumble twist of investigative lyricism, tearing strips of wall paper down off the mythology in question. There are 13 songs to follow — odes to (tear apart) different delusions — myths — dreams — fibs. The common in-thing is the co-existence and separation of myth and reality. By the time it's through, "trust" means "complacency," as well.

The trad rock 'n' roll critic pigeonholes — limits — specifies. Which very much "misses the point" with Costello's fancy and facility with language — otherwise known as "good lyrics." The point is — there is no one point. Any one song deals with (m)any number(s) of things. There are two-plus sides to every story...

This is good — this is unusually sharp and risky, extraordinary in rock terms, not much less so in the current literary climate (rotting formalism). Costello is a poet, but without all the bore — without the precious library ticket connotations. What's more, his words are written to be sung — the puns and twists and turns are both grammatical and vocal, which allows him to blow up the merest metaphor to bursting point. Does he mean "cheque mate" or "check mate"? Both!

And he is an increasingly, exceedingly "good" vocalist — sliding unexpectedly, prolonging, devouring, pushing, judging with syllables to humorous, dangerous, langourous effect.

Costello opens up all the sore contradictions the most theoretically high-minded thinkers-singers-writers wouldn't dare let their public hear. But his isn't a whining self-confessional. Oh no. The details may well be drawn from Costello's private life drama, but this is neither clear nor important. What is important is not how "open" he is — but how open he can get words to be.

The three main steps the words have to learn are: sex & romance, money, culture. His favourite being the first. Like few other songwriters (along with August Darnell he gives the impression of being able to write classic songs in his sleep — real songwriters in the businesslike Tin Pan Alley sense), Costello can convey the rapture of love and at the same time slice through the more negative codes of male and female sexuality. Whereas in the past this ability was often displaced onto one or other hapless victim from his little black book, since Get Happy!! it has been ratlonalised into a highly compassionáte, personally political voice. The subject which receives more hearing than any other on Trust is sexual deception and violence. Trust = Power, you see, and it can either be used or abused. Unlike a lot of pre-Get Happy!! Costello, the villain of the pieces is predominantly a bloke — which is not to say that the author has gone on a mad hack guilty binge, atoning for past sins by way of laying all blame squarely upon the nastier aspects of the masculine psyche; everything is put in a context or two.

But lest we forget: these aren't smug academic mirrors — but pop songs, not afraid of their public. It would, however, be daft to attempt anything approaching a "definitive" perspective on Trust. Although it's six songs less than Get Happy!! that still leaves a lot of syntax to sift through. It took me half the last year to realise what half the terms and turns of phrase on Get Happy!! added up to. So, a hasty empirical scan of Trust — featuring Elvis Costello as the private eye ("Looking Italian" the sleeve sez) Steve Nieve on keys, Bruce Thomas on bass notes, Pete Thomas on drumbeat and a Nick Lowe production "in association with" Roger Bechirian "assisted by" Neil King. Wheel it out...

"Bad lovers face to face in the morning / Shy apologies and polite regrets / Slow dances that left no one enough / Outraged glances and indiscreet yawning / Good manners and bad breath get you nowhere / ... She's no Angel / He's no Saint / They're all covered up with whitewash and greasepaint."

Toss to the left, turn to the right. Trust nearly caves in under the weight of Costello's bewildering range of viewpoints — or vantage points. "New Lace Sleeves" — quoted above — is the apex of this emotional index, switching from involved observation to bitter indictment to shrill humour in a manner of couplets.

"Lovers Walk" — which follows "Clubland" on Side One — is a panted, frenzied phenomenological shortlist, a run through of all characters and characteristics to come, so to speak — from the champagne greeting to the clandestine meet. The beat is halfway between Bo Diddley and Antmusic, the button is double entendre. "Be on caution where lovers walk." "You'll Never Be A Man" is first up to get specific, and bound to be "interpreted" as soul-searching autobiographical on Costello's part. "You'll never be a man / No matter how many foreign bodies you can take / You'll never be a man / When you're half a woman and half awake / With a faceful of tears and a chemical shake." I've decided it's about me — anything else would be speculation.

"Pretty Words" is similarly open heart, part diary entry partly obtuse — possibly the most vulnerable song here, or elsewhere in Costello's past, turning imperceptibly from lovely personal detail ("You're loosening all the screws that hold the hinges on my life!" — a different kind of love song) into public prosecution, in an immaculately thought-out, very vintage Tamla arrangement.

The way in which the main "Pretty words don't mean much any more" refrain is phrased and placed, the statement could be one of regret or definition; I go for regret. "No words of consolation / Just cartoons and chitter chatter / Well, well fancy that! / Millions murdered for a kiss-me-quick hat"

The same barren, conservative wasteland is looked over in "Watch Your Step," where the sheer density of imagery nearly overloads the subject matter to the point where it's bliss just to listen to the language: "Broken noses hung up on the wall / Back slapping drinkers cheer the heavyweight brawl / So punch drunk they don't understand at all /... Think you're young and original? / Get out before they get to / Watch your step."

"White Knuckles" and "Shot With His Own Gun" both deal with sexual misadventure of one strain or another. In the former, oppression is recognisable and unfortunately everyday in detail: "White knuckles on black and blue skin / You don't have to take it so you just give in / White knuckles sweating on the headboard..." The haunting "Shot With His Own Gun" (just voice and piano) is much worse, if I get the drift; even if I don't, the feeling is bad enough: "How does it feel now you've been undressed / By a man with a mind like the gutter press / ...He comes without warning, leaves without feeling."

Elsewhere, there's the uptight and utterly incomprehensible "Luxembourg," the more leisurely but equally stubborn "Strict Time" ("Musical valium... More like a handjob than a handjive"?), the Squeezy Glenn Tilbrook duet of "From A Whisper To A Scream," the thoroughly C&W "Different Finger" and slightly sleepwalking "Fish 'N' Chip Paper." I can't say anything about "Big Sister's Clothes."

In conclusion, I would just like to say that Get Happy!! is an enormously underrated linguistic and dance music work, "New Lace Sleeves" is not only the best "protest" song ever recorded but also the only song to make me laugh out loud for a very long time, and that Trust should not be at all underrated as a linguistic and dance music long playing record.

Elvis Costello is using words that should fill our times and thoughts with revision and renewed need. In that respect, like all the "best" writers, he is performing a vital task — the resuscitation of words, ideas, meanings that are in danger of being neglected or crushed by ether cultural poverty or general boredom. Costello — like hardly anyone else the eye can hear — has the ability to invest fresh meanings in a hitherto trustworthy old phrase. This music respects everybody's intelligence — not just an intellectual clique here, an ineffectual clique there.

Trust him to do that. Turn to the left!

Tags: TrustNick LoweThe AttractionsSteve NieveBruce ThomasPete ThomasGet Happy!!ClublandMotownTamlaI Can't Stand Up For Falling DownRoger BechirianNew Lace SleevesLovers WalkBo DiddleyYou'll Never Be A ManPretty WordsWatch Your StepWhite KnucklesShot With His Own GunLuxembourgStrict TimeSqueezeGlenn TilbrookFrom A Whisper To A ScreamDifferent FingerFish 'N' Chip PaperBig Sister's ClothesReaders Polls

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New Musical Express, January 24, 1981

Ian Penman reviews Trust.

EC, Steve Nieve and Get Happy!! place in the 1980 Readers' Poll.

A two-page ad for Trust runs on pages 24-25.


1981-01-24 New Musical Express page 26.jpg1981-01-24 New Musical Express page 27.jpg
Page scans.

Readers' Poll '80


EC, Steve, and Get Happy!! placed in the following categories:

Male singer

  1. Paul Weller
  2. David Bowie
  3. Ian Curtis
  4. Sting
  5. John Lydon
  6. Adam Ant
  7. Peter Gabriel
  8. Joe Strummer
  9. Bruce Springsteen
  10. Feargal Sharkey
  11. Ian McCulloch
  12. Elvis Costello
  13. Bryan Ferry
  14. Dave Vanian
  15. Mark Smith


  1. Paul Weller
  2. David Bowie
  3. Elvis Costello
  4. Ian Curtis
  5. Bruce Springsteen
  6. David Byrne
  7. Strummer/Jones
  8. Peter Gabriel
  9. John Lennon
  10. Sting


  1. Sound Affects — The Jam
  2. Closer — Joy Division
  3. Scary Monsters — David Bowie
  4. Crocodiles — Echo & the Bunnymen
  5. Signing Off — UB40
  6. Remain in Light — Talking Heads
  7. Kings of the Wild Frontier — Adam and the Ants
  8. Zenyatta Mondatta — The Police
  9. I Just Can't Stop It — The Beat
  10. Peter Gabriel — Peter Gabriel
  11. Get Happy!! — Elvis Costello and the Attractions
  12. Hypnotised — The Undertones
  13. London Calling — The Clash
  14. Duke — Genesis
  15. The Correct Use Of Soap — Magazine
  16. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables — Dead Kennedys
  17. Black Album — The Damned
  18. More Specials — Specials
  19. Flesh And Blood — Roxy Music
  20. Autoamerican — Blondie


  1. Dave Greenfield
  2. Jerry Dammers
  3. Paul Humphreys
  4. Dave Formula
  5. Brian Eno
  6. Steve Nieve
  7. Tony Banks
  8. Rick Wakeman
  9. Gary Numan
  10. Mike Barson

1981-01-24 New Musical Express pages 20-21.jpg

1981-01-24 New Musical Express pages 24-25.jpg

1981-01-24 New Musical Express advertisement.jpg

1977 photo by Anton Corbijn.
1981-01-24 New Musical Express photo 01 ac.jpg

Cover and clipping.
1981-01-24 New Musical Express cover.jpg 1981-01-24 New Musical Express page 27 clipping 01.jpg


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