Elvis Costello (1981)
Since his dramatic appearance in late 1977 with the brilliant rhythm-and-punk debut album My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello had nearly become as big as the Beatles until putting his foot in it big time with the notorious drunken incident in the States in 1979.
Armed Forces was great stuff but a little formulaic, especially in the wake of the awesome This Year’s Model (1978). Get Happy (1980) had not been a commercial success, even if the critics drooled over its excellent soul inspired material.
Which brings us to the 1981 album Trust, produced once again by the experienced Nick Lowe and including some impressively versatile songwriting. Aided and abetted by Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums, Elvis introduces the album with Clubland, a messy but intriguing essay in jazz pop.
There's a piece in someone's pocket to do the dirty work, you've come to shoot the pony
he croons, immediately setting out his film noir concept for most of these cinematic prose-poems.
A rotating beat on Pete Thomas’ tom-toms brings in Lovers Walk, a sort of prototype rap song, but in the form of a demented rant set to an odd calypso leitmotif from the classically trained Nieve on piano. Elvis has always had a penchant for puns, double entendres and layers of meaning in his lyrics. For example:
Lovers strut, lovers stroll, lovers leap
Lovers late, lovers wait
Making promises that they can't keep
Lovers link up arm and arm
Lovers slink up, lovers charm
Lovers drink up and come to harm
In amongst the groping, boozing and meandering, these lovers seem threatened by something odious.
The third song is the first of a number of outstanding classics on Trust. You’ll Never Be A Man struts proudly to the front of the stage, its irresistible soul swagger a vehicle for the most outrageous ensemble playing on the album. Costello’s puns begin getting out of control here:
Under the table with a chemical shake,
given half a chance, that I can take
Are you so superior, are you in such pain?
Are you made out of porcelain?
When they made you they broke the cast
Don't wanna be first, I just want to last
The clarity of Nick Lowe’s EQ settings means that each bang on the drums booms out of the speakers, so intimate is the mix. Costello sings plaintively and with passion, totally committed.
Pretty Words continues the mood of shadows, vengeance and fifties detective movies. Costello snarls:
fat cats and army brats, hep cats and dog tag
pawing over girly mags.
Seedy goings-on are ruthlessly exposed while men are, as always in Elvis’ songs, most certainly men:
Well well, fancy that
Millions murdered for a kiss-me-quick hat
No backbone, blood and guts
Better keep your big mouth shut.
A Bo Diddley guitar riff sinuously brings us to Strict Time, a tense song dealing with all manner of possible variations of violence, set against more rolling percussion.
Oh the muscles flex and the fingers curl
And a cold sweat breaks out on the sweater girl
Oh he's all hands, don't touch that dial
The courting cold wars weekend witch trial.
Luxembourg is frankly dull and ordinary, a disappointing gap in quality in the middle of the album.
But fear ye not! Because it’s followed by the exquisite Watch Your Step, a cool as ice classic involving some truly international criminals (Singapore, Widnes). Steve Nieve’s piano, already up front, now starts to dominate the record with brilliant cocktail jazz glissandos. If there’s a theme to Trust, then that theme must be impending violence:
Broken noses hung up on the wall
Back slapping drinkers cheer the heavy weight brawl
So punch drunk they don't understand at all
You better watch your step.
A brutal combination of class warfare, anti-militancy and the grisly aftermath of sexual one night stands, New Lace Sleeves competes with You’ll Never Be A Man for the top performance on the album. Tasteful hi-hat-to-snare work from Pete Thomas is followed by a low growl of guitar, stylish bass murmurs and Elvis’ vocal, brimming with regret:
Bad lovers face to face in the morning
Shy apologies and polite regrets
Slow dances that left no warning
of outraged glances and indiscreet yawning.
A new wave Dylan, perhaps?
On From A Whisper To A Scream, Elvis duets with Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze, to little effect. Unloved by many Costello admirers, the song tries too hard to please and has little character.
Some lyrics on these songs had sat unused in young Declan Macmanus’ notebooks for years. The wonderful Different Finger was written when he was a tender twenty one, a sprightly country and western ballad of surprising maturity. With its yearning vocal, echoing guitars and honky tonk piano, it was a nod towards his next project.
Sounding like Booker T & The MGs, the fabulous Attractions steam into White Knuckles like men possessed. Nieve’s reed organ gives it a sixties soul ambience. It suddenly changes tempo towards the finale, giving it an anguished desperation.
Nieve’s elegant piano playing frames Shot With His Own Gun, a fantastic song riddled with plays on words until the listener is lost in a maze of meanings. The melody is wistful and owes more than a little to the influence of people like George Gershwin and Cole Porter. A long way from punk, for sure! Now daddy’s keeping mum, Elvis confides, as the doom-laden piano fades away.
Fish ‘n’ Chip Paper is a filler, pure and simple. A pleasant enough track, but no cigar, Elvis! It sounds like a B side, which is perhaps where it should have been used.
Elvis and the boys recorded no less than three versions of the album’s final, timeless song, Big Sister’s Clothes, and each version couldn’t have been more different from each other. The winner was this extraordinary arrangement, which begins with brushed timpani, cello treated with tremolo and Costello’s gorgeous singing.
Lyrically it’s another panoply of puns, but so entertaining is this wordsmith, it doesn’t pall in the least. On the contrary, it seems to cast a spell over the listener, like Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde phase:
Sheep to the slaughter oh I thought this must be love
All your sons and daughters in a strangle hold with a kid glove
She's got eyes like saucers oh you think she's a dish
She is the blue chip that belongs to the big fish.
Those three below-par songs mentioned aside, Trust is one of Elvis Costello’s most enduring collections of great songs. It’s only in the last ten years that I’ve fully appreciated its strengths, and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending it to the unenlightened. Get used to that unique voice first, and a whole garden of delights awaits you.
Coming next month:
Part 8 • Magazine • Secondhand Daylight