Wrapping up his Helsinki sound series with We Are All Cowards Now, Elvis Costello lays to rest a rather mixed, but evidently rewarding trilogy. Whilst the charms of Hetty O’Hara were lost entirely on me, its mixing not the best and its lyrics awash with a loosely contrite message, I did find solace in the first release, No Flag. An unabashed criticism of faith to the flag, and the dangers of blind allegiance. Now comes We Are All Cowards, a song built up by Costello as being similar to the anger and critical nature of Oliver’s Army or Tramp Down the Dirt. A high bar indeed for We Are All Cowards to meet, and it’s no surprise that it falls rather short of its target.
Speaking of great historical leaders, art, and just about anything that seems to creep into his mind and out of his mouth, Costello presents a song that feels wholly aimless in both tone and style. He darts around several topics, never bringing them together in a manner that feels at all articulate. He loses himself to a powerless backing track, filled with generally redundant sounds, a track that sounds generic. It’s strange, especially after the innovations to be found on No Flag and Hetty O’Hara, the two previous Helsinki sounds offering up something completely different to the energetic New Wave pop he offered up in his early days. The Helsinki trio shy away somewhat from his later Baroque pop tones also, and in turn create a blend of icy lyrics and pent up frustration, all backed by some strong new riffs and concoctions like no other.
But We Are All Cowards Now relishes in its conventional nature, it never allows itself to form into anything more than a non-specific pop ballad. Inconsequential, and rather confused at times, its message is muddled in poor prose and infantile, expressionless lyrics. There are sparks of greatness, and Costello’s style here is certainly found, but only in brief pockets. A strong opening line opens us up to the many possibilities around him, but he feeds us a line about sons and daughters, another anti-war bop, who’s biggest let down is that it’s near nonsensical.
Building this song up as a faithful sequel to that of his most politically charged, memorable works, Costello sets himself up to let his audience down rather instantly. His crooning voice and exceptional vocal talent is still prominent, but the message behind his lyrics here are lost and muddled. It’s a leap in the wrong direction, a shameful let down after how on point and spiteful No Flag felt. The anger seeped out of the song with clear, formed direction, a stark contrast to the muted tones of We Are All Cowards Now. There’s no elevated moment, no build-up or blow-out that could change up the pacing or the beat, it’s all very humdrum and underwhelming. A sad conclusion to a clunky trilogy.