1. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Trust
Trouser Press wrote: “A confident show from Mr. Reliable before plunging into Nashville terra incognita.”
Trust was the first of two albums Elvis Costello released in 1981, and, as the review implies, the latter offering was considered problematic, at best. Entitled Almost Blue, it’s a covers album feature nothing but country songs, many of them penned by seminal figures of the genre: Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones. It was reviewed in the very same issue of Trouser Press that lauded Trust as the best album of the year. The writer conveys guarded respect and confusion more than pure ire (“Almost Blue demonstrates Costello’s affection for the genre — three cheers for that! — but keeps the clinical distance of an observor”), but the sense of fan agitation is clear in the single sentence used to cite Trust‘s excellence. After an early career that seemed to redefine the level of cerebral wherewithal that could be brought to rock songwriting, could the guy with the blocky black glasses finally be slipping?
Realistically — and I court accusations of alternative rock heresy for saying this — but the possibility that Costello wasn’t going to be an endless font of classic records was creeping in already on Trust. Before I get myself in too deep, let’s acknowledge that Trust had the burden of following up an quartet of records — My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy! — that’s as good as any rock ‘n’ roll opening statement ever made. There’s only one directional arrow at the end of that roadway, and it points straight down. A guy can only be slagged so much for making music that’s a let-down from material like that.
Trust reminds me of any number of latter-day Costello records, the sort that are sturdy, admirable, and clearly penned by a guy with a sterling vocabulary. It’s also oddly passionless. Songs like “Watch Your Step” and “New Lace Sleeves” may be early indications of Costello’s abiding desire to be a crooner (a desire he would later take to blissfully ridiculous extremes) but they’re also songs that just kind of lie there on the album. Costello later noted that Trust was “the most drug-influenced” album he ever created as he and his bandmates were using their studio time to perform undocumented experiments on excessive consumption levels and that embrace of boozy, druggy hedonism could certainly help explain the flagging energy.
There are surely plenty of exceptions on the record: “Clubland” is sharp and inventive, “White Knuckles” is fierce and harrowing, and “From a Whisper to a Scream” is terrifically lively, perhaps inspired somewhat Costello’s need to properly keep up with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze who turns up to offer guest vocals. Like Costello’s previous outings, the album was produced by Nick Lowe, and he provides his steady, distinctive touch. The string of consecutive collaborations ended here, although Lowe would serve in that capacity one more time in the future, shepherding the album that can arguably be considered Costello’s last truly great one. I’ll leave it to others to determine if that’s a telling fact or merely coincidence.
Trust is a respectable record, but it almost seems that Trouser Press selected it to make a statement, communicating to Costello that a foray into covering country songs may be a fun time for him, but — by god! — this was the sort of record he was supposed to be making. In comparison, the Trouser Press writers and editors may have been right, but Costello’s wheels had started losing traction a little earlier than they supposed.
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story
3. (tie) The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat
3. (tie) The Clash, Sandinista!
2. U2, Boy