It’s not going too far to say that Elvis Costello’s career depends upon our misunderstanding him. Impatient and agonized, his image flickers: good guy, then bad guy, then good guy. It’s impossible to get a fix on him, easy to be confused by what he says and does. The distance he maintains from his fans, his deadpan demeanor, the clever opacity of his lyrics, the jittery but artful leaps of musical style — all of these combine to form the persona of a man you can’t trust.
For some of us, of course, that’s a damn good recommendation, since the motives and moods of many of today’s rock superstars are often too obvious to merit more than passing interest. By contrast, Costello is a model of ambiguity: he’s discretion’s craftsman.
From the impish hint of a smile that graces the cover portrait to the warm, reedy singing in most of its fourteen songs, Trust is Elvis Costello’s biggest tease. It contains some of his very best work and some of his very worst — none of it readily comprehensible, all of it shot through with surprising images and strikingly lovely music. “Pretty words don’t mean much anymore/I don’t mean to be mean much anymore,” he sings at one point, and the double level of that assertion (narrator to lover/Elvis to us) is enough to rattle the heart of any dedicated Costello watcher.
Certainly, Costello has meant to be mean in the past. Indeed, ever since he announced, early in the game, that his primary motives were “revenge and guilt,” his career has invariably been defined in those sour terms. Revenge and guilt found their apotheosis on last year’s Get Happy!! (in twenty brutally succinct, gorgeously allusive compositions), but Trust indicates that the artist is now feeling constrained by the love-’em-and-lacerate-’em image. Accordingly, most of the new tunes are sung with a purity of tone — and a minimum of irony — that Costello hasn’t permitted himself since his debut album, My Aim Is True. It’s as if a clear throat were meant to symbolize a clear conscience.
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Similarly, Nick Lowe’s production has a crisp, got-live-if-you-want-it feel (the exception being the muddy, muddled “Big Sister’s Clothes,” but an asterisk in the credits says: “Nick Lowe not to blame for this one”). Throughout, the spare backing by the threeman Attractions boasts a wry wit. These players bolster their boss by making supportive, ingratiating musical jokes. Pete Thomas’ drums in “Lovers Walk” suggest a Bo Diddley session. Keyboardist Steve Nieve riddles the record with mocking references to many periods of pop music, from the Liberace-like arpeggios in the overripe and melodramatic “Shot with His Own Gun” to the honky-tonk tinkling in “Different Finger.”
Yet Trust‘s smooth sound and clever accompaniments don’t yield a forthright LP. Instead, this technical precision is a setup, something not to be trusted. Because, while spinning out his umpteenth variation on the earnest-man-betrayed-by-wily-woman theme, Elvis Costello has written some confounding lyrics, convoluted and suffused with a schoolboy’s delight in alliteration and cheesy puns.
Though Costello has always taken pride in giving sentimental clichés a malicious twitting, that pride has usually extended to working out the wordplay in an orderly, exhaustive fashion. Armed Forces, you’ll recall, was the first rock & roll concept album whose concept wasn’t a story but the detailing of a metaphor: love affairs as military maneuvers.
In contrast, Trust is a collection of images picked up and dropped, each verse shedding a bushel of bon mots like so many hot potatoes. Critics of Get Happy!! complained that its twenty songs were never allowed to build to a satisfying climax. Similar thinking about Trust might lead you to suspect that Costello has developed a distaste for, uh, completion. Such a conclusion would be a grave mistake.
Like a gutsier, livelier Ronald Firbank, Elvis Costello takes an Englishman’s pride in proper phrasing to absurd, comic extremes. “You need protection from the physical part of conversation/Though the fist is mightier than the lip, it adds to aberration” is the opening couplet of “You’ll Never Be a Man.” Though it trips delightfully from the singer’s tongue, try parsing that sucker yourself. This is Costello’s achievement: the man who not long ago admitted to Tom Snyder that he admired wordsmith-wits like Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart is now breaking away from pop-song conventions by shifting emotional and linguistic gears within a single verse — sometimes within a single line. Technically, the results are awesome.
It’s a bold strategy, albeit one guaranteed a certain amount of success by the genial force of the Attractions’ playing and the clear, clean tunes that apparently flow unceasingly from Costello’s pen. Sometimes this impressionistic piling on of details is simply silly: e.g., syllables that seem assembled merely to fill out the meter of a line, like “Drinkin’ down the eau de cologne/Spittin’ out the Kodachrome.” Other times, the method offers only hollow aphorisms: “We’re all covered up with whitewash and greasepaint.”
But, more often, the artist’s words and music make exhilarating connections with pop past and pop future, from the Elvis Presley-style echoes of “Luxembourg” to the duet that Costello sings with Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook. In “From a Whisper to a Scream,” Costello’s sour croon and Tilbrook’s sweet moan swoop and dive around each other in joyous comradeship. Here and elsewhere, Costello actually breaks loose: we trust him, he trusts us.