Friday, November 7, 2008

Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Trust (Columbia, 1981; Rykodisc, 1994)

"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 pass."

From 1977 to 1982, Elvis Costello could do no wrong, and it wasn't for lack of trying. Beginning with the debut My Aim is True and ending with the baroque, Sgt. Peppers-esque Imperial Bedroom, this period was astonishing both in the quality (high to mindbendingly high) and quantity (seven LPs in five years, impressive by anyone's standards) of Costello's output. You'd be hard pressed to find any pop/rock artist past or present who managed to produce as many truly classic albums in such a short amount of time: the clever country-cum-pub rock of My Aim is True in '77, followed the next year by the timeless scorcher This Year's Model, followed the very next year by Armed Forces' livid new wave genius.

Costello could have stopped there and proudly called it a career, but instead he continued his campaign to conquer the freshly postpunk world with the Stax/Motown amphetamine reverie of Get Happy!! in 1980, the lush chamber punk of Trust and (and!) the underrated country tribute Almost Blue in '81, running out of steam (comparatively) only after the career highlight of Imperial Bedroom in '82 (and then catching his breath to release some pretty great records over the course of the rest of the decade). Whew. It's enough to make any aspiring songwriter hang his head in shame and just call it a day.

And of all the records released in this early Costello-as-terrifyingly-talented-enfant-terrible period, Trust is, I think, the most interesting. For one, it's a stellar collection, bursting at the seams with top-drawer songcraft and savant-level arrangements. However, it's also an incredibly giant step forward musically, stylistically, and conceptually. Prior to Trust, Costello was essentially playing Mensa-level punk and new wave, taking the vitriol and aggression of the Class of '77 and turning it inward, giving it a powerful emotional edge and a far more accomplished instrumental dimension. The songs on This Year's Model and Armed Forces are the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks as played by a pissed-off honors student with a boulder on his shoulder and incredible chops. And Get Happy!!, Costello's take on classic American soul and R&B, is the best party record ever made, primarily because he was able to deftly demonstrate that punk and soul are but a tempo apart.

But Trust is different. For one thing, the songs are much slower, generally speaking. With one or two exceptions, these are mid-tempo to down-tempo numbers. Also, though Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve had been a fundamental part of the Costello sound since This Year's Model, his contributions had tended towards nervey, high-tension synth lines; Trust finds Nieve playing sweeping piano passages, brought to the front of the room by Nick Lowe's and Roger Bechirian's epic production. Costello's guitar, on the other hand, is pushed down in the mix, well below the as-always masterful rhythm section of Bruce (bass) and Pete (drums) Thomas. In other words, this is basically a piano-drums-bass record with guitar thrown in for flavor. And yet, Costello manages to retain his rage and amplify it using multi-layered, complex arrangements, the end result being one of his most engaging records ever. And that's saying something.

Track-wise, there's not a bad one on here, so I'll just hit the highlights (they're all highlights). Opener "Clubland" is a pounding, brutally rhythmic joy, marked by Nieve's echoey, shabby nightclub piano flourishes and Bruce Thomas's rubbery, insistent bass lines. "Thursday to Saturday/ Money's gone already," Costello shouts desperately. "Some things come in common these days/ Your hands and work aren't steady." "Lovers' Walk" takes Pete Thomas' tribal, octopus-armed drumwork as its starting point, and moves into a skittering, anxious shuffle before throwing a beautiful fit at the 0:58 mark, with Costello angrily asking the crowd, "Will you look what the lovers' done?" The mid-tempo, sadly triumphant gem "You'll Never Be a Man" is a razor sharp exercise in claustrophobic tension, and features one of Costello's best vocal performances; the way he sings the last several measures is a feat of phrasing and time.

"Strict Time" is one of the more guitar-oriented tracks, another excessively beat-driven burner. The rockabilly throwback of "Luxembourg" hints at the retro directions Costello would take later on in his career. "Watch Your Step" is an Attractions masterpiece, an enigmatically sinister slow-fuse of a song, with an impossible-to-forget creeping bassline and eerie big top organ motif. "Bye," croons Costello bitterly. "I send you all my regards/ You're so tough/ You're so hard/ Listen to the hammers falling in the breaker's yard/ You better watch your step." "New Lace Sleeves" is a dubby loper with a sterling melody, scratchy guitar work, and a nearly disco swing. "From a Whisper to a Sceam" finds the Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook helping out on vocals, joining Costello on a good natured (for Costello) rave up. Closer "Big Sister's Clothes" is a sophisticated, haunting ballad with a stripped-down arrangement that shifts from elegy to jaunty toe-tapper in just over two minutes.

Trust is a pretty complicated record. Not in terms of enjoyment; it's easy to enjoy. That's simple. But it's complicated in terms of tone and intent, especially given Costello's output up to that point. It's as though Costello was saying with Trust, "Look, I've got a lot of bright ideas and I've got a lot of anger and resentment. And I don't need to play especially loud or fast to prove it." And he was right. Trust in Trust.