Monday, July 10, 2017

A Hammer on the Slap and Tickle


Today's formative-album replay: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Trust. A painful, aggrieved grab bag that somehow sensationally coheres, this 1981 masterwork might be thought of as Revolver to Imperial Bedroom’s Sgt. Pepper. As explosive as it is eclectic, somehow both stark and polished, it has an unseemly urgency in its delivery that’s unmatched by anything in Costello’s work with the Attractions outside of This Year’s Model. But of course a central virtue of his early work in particular is that keen, spitting rage fits him like a sweat-through suit; in his prime he makes howls of shame and recrimination baroquely beautiful. Trust represents both the apotheosis of his brilliant first chapter as Angry Buddy Holly and a harbinger of the ageless, jack-of-all-trades artisan he’d soon settle into.

By most accounts this is the record where Costello started to feel his age, in part following the rock convention that marks 27 as a make-or-break year, and in part because he and his band were accelerating the process with the conventional upper-downer showbiz diet. But it’s not a drug influence I hear on Trust so much as a kind of acid reflux: While the accusatory venom of his songs’ unreliable narrators had previously sprayed some inevitable blowback on them as they lay waste to their targets, on this record the indignation and anger seem aimed inward more than outward. When he sings “You’ll never be a man/No matter how foreign bodies you can take,” it’s impossible not to hear it as self-reproach. The title of the album’s most astonishingly lovely song, a penny dreadful for just piano and voice, sums it up: “Shot With His Own Gun.”

If Costello incriminates himself more than ever before, the result is new reservoirs of near-compassion, or at least a wider-ranging lens of consideration, and new shades of vulnerability. The record feels distinctly cinematic, and he’s not the only character, or even always the lead: From the startling in media res throwdown of “Clubland” to the shuffling, simmering home brew of “Big Sister’s Clothes,” Trust lays a teeming panorama of barroom brawls and indiscreet assignations over a soundtrack as propulsive and varied as any Costello would offer until Spike. And the Attractions throughout sound like the most versatile bar band you’d ever dream of, from barreling rock to sidelong country, with Bruce Thomas’s bass occasionally almost singing like a vocal part, Steve Nieve’s piano and organ slashing and splashing at odd angles, and Pete Thomas’s surgical drums slicing through it all, especially the circumspect yet soaring morning-after pill “New Lace Sleeves.”

That song's lyrics, like the ambling, engagingly under-sung “Watch Your Step,” reportedly date from Costello’s teen years. As these are two of the album’s best and wisest cuts, does this give the lie to the idea that Trust represents some kind of badge of maturity? Perhaps, but I rather think that Costello was an old soul from the first--an old soul thrust into a seething, all-too-human body (with a froggy voice) that he punished with all the usual sins of the flesh but which, along the way, he honed into a richly expressive instrument. I’ve loved many of his records before and since, but for me Trust is the one on which that instrument first showed its full dynamic range.

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