Elvis Costello's Best (and Most Curiously Underrated) Album Turns 30

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Happy thirtieth birthday to Elvis Costello’s best album, Trust, which he released on January 23, 1981. It’s never been one of his most famous albums, but it’s his funniest, his wisest, and his most rocking. “That’s a record that falls between the cracks a little bit,” Costello told me when I interviewed him in 2002. “That’s a good record. I think it has one of the greatest Attractions performances, ‘New Lace Sleeves.’”

Trust has always been curiously underrated, in part because it was Elvis’s first album not to spawn any hit singles. The sole U.K. single and leadoff track was “Clubland,” the weakest thing on the album. “Clubland” stalled at Number Sixty on the U.K. pop charts, becoming Elvis’ first single to miss the Top Forty. (Just a few months later he was back in the Top Ten with one of his best-selling records ever, a cover version of George Jones’ “Good Year for the Roses,” from his awful country homage Almost Blue. The Eighties were weird.)

But the main reason is that Trust didn’t really have an angle. You can sum up Elvis' other early albums handily enough: My Aim Is True was the “angry young man” one, This Year’s Model was the “girls hate me” one, Armed Forces was the “political” one,” Get Happy was the “Sixties R&B” one, Imperial Bedroom was the “show-tune” one, and so on. Trust is messier and harder to summarize. In his excellent liner notes to the Rhino edition, Costello calls it “easily the most drug-influenced record of my career.” As he writes, “It was completed close to a self-induced nervous collapse on a diet of rough ‘scrumpy’ cider, gin and tonic, various powders, only one of which was ‘Andrews’ Liver Salts,’ and in the final hours, Seconal and Johnny Walker Black Label.”

But amid all the druggy anxiety, Costello came up with his most honest and self-mocking tunes. He was still singing about girl trouble, but for the first time, the girls in his songs weren’t faceless villains or metaphors for fascism. And for the first time, he faced up to the possibility that his love life might be less traumatic if he didn’t act like such a tool all the time. “Watch Your Step,” “Shot With His Own Gun,” “Pretty Words,” “White Knuckles” — these are amazingly brave and witty songs about taking the blame for his own misery.

There’s not much organ or guitar, leaving more space for Steve Nieve to show off what a phenomenally frilly piano player he could be (“You’ll Never Be a Man”!), over Pete Thomas’ astoundingly boozy drums (“Strict Time”!). There’s also a touch of reggae melodica in the album’s undisputed twin highlights, “Watch Your Step” and “New Lace Sleeves.” The tunes are hugely influenced by Paul McCartney’s melodies and Randy Newman’s chords, with a bit of the young Harry Nilsson in Elvis’ chilled-out deadpan vocals. He sings about masculinity, failed adult relationships, the musings of a mediocre womanizer chasing too many mediocre women and starting to wonder why. As he mentions in his liner notes, “The fact that I had come close to a terminal fracture in my marriage lowered me into feelings of adult guilt and romantic disillusionment.” No kidding.

Trust has a death-of-a-ladies’-man vibe — think of Marcello Mastroianni in 8 ½, Warren Beatty in Shampoo, or Leonard Cohen on New Skin for the Old Ceremony. (Elvis was dressing exactly like Mastroianni in this period, which is probably why he describes himself as “trying to look Italian to the musical Valium.”) He sings in the voice of a young rake, still in his mid-to-late twenties, who catches himself growing prematurely old and bitter, bored with macho posing, losing his touch with each caress, desperately trying to figure out other ways to be a man. “Spend every evening looking so appealing, he comes without warning, he’s without feeling” — yowch. Elvis doesn’t figure out any answers; the closest he comes to a moral is in “New Lace Sleeves,” when he sneers, “Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere.” But at least the songs are funny enough to point to a way out.

“Watch Your Step” and “From a Whisper to a Scream” got a little airplay on U.S. new wave radio, while the Attractions did bang-up versions of the former and “New Lace Sleeves” on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show. Trust also did surprisingly well in the 1981 album-of-the-year polls; in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll, it finished a close third, right behind the Clash’s Sandinista! and X’s Wild Gift. A year later, Elvis released the flashy Imperial Bedroom, which got such dizzy acclaim that people forgot about Trust for a minute. But it’s always worth digging out, and for some fans, it always sounds like Elvis at his absolute best.

Here’s a great version of “Watch Your Step,” from The Tomorrow Show With Tom Syder on February 3, 1981.

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