Monday, December 21, 2009

Through Glasses Darkly

On his exhilarating debut “My Aim Is True”, Elvis Costello sang, “I’m not angry any more”, but listening to his outstanding follow-up “This Year’s Model”, nothing seems to be further from the truth. Released in 1978, Costello’s second album finds him at his most scornful, dripping with the aggression, menace and dark humour that have become his trademarks, though it also defiantly deals with the disappointment and denial experienced by this Angry Young Man.

While “My Aim Is True” definitely possessed the punk spirit with its biting lyrics and stripped-down production, “This Year’s Model” actually sounds like punk, almost as if it is kicking open the door that the first album had left ajar. Perfectly balancing the raw energy of his debut with the more elegant songwriting that would come to characterise Costello’s later work, this record explodes into action with (ironically) “No Action”, two minutes of fury wrapped up in a delicious melody that immediately establishes his punk credentials, as the group sounds as if they are spinning out of control. This is a dynamic, yet complex album of sparkling songs featuring an earnest maelstrom of emotional spite, bitter frustration, sexual angst and caustic political commentary – in other words, perfect for almost every teenager.

"Let them all talk"

The songs are as fast and spiky as the most vitriolic punk band, but Costello is a true Renaissance man and he manages to successfully blend in pop, new wave, rock and roll and even reggae without missing a beat. Having worked with the likes of The Damned and The Ramones, producer Nick Lowe not only brought all the punk credibility any group could want, but also gave the record a phenomenal sense of urgency. Edgier and nastier than ever before, Lowe pumped up the volume and delivered a raucous, full-bodied sound, teetering on the edge of combustion. There is a frenetic, jerky quality to this music that is highly infectious. Surrounding Costello’s breathless, snarling vocals with swirling keyboards and slashing guitar breaks, Lowe’s superb production means that “This Year’s Model” flashes by at a blinding pace.

Much of the credit is also due to The Attractions, whose sterling efforts on this album marked the beginning of a long, illustrious collaboration with Costello. Their wired intensity adds something to this album that was lacking in his more restrained debut, as they detonate in all their chaotic glory behind him. The engine’s dynamic propulsion is driven forward by the thumping rhythm section of Pete Thomas (drums) and Bruce Thomas on bass (no relation). Pete’s powerful drumming maintains a furious pace throughout, particularly on “Pump It Up” and “This Year’s Girl”, while Bruce’s nimble, innovative playing style provides a perfect counter-point.

"I can't stand up for falling down"

However, the keyboards of the incomparable Steve Nieve are the most important ingredient in the mix. Wielding his organ with the strength of a punk rock guitar, he gives the music much of its character, combining quirky progressions with edgy, piercing chords. The irresistible momentum of Nieve’s keyboards was an ideal match for Costello’s acerbic wit and transformed his sound into an intricate, sophisticated post-punk. It’s the moment when the New Wave movement found its front man – though this did unfortunately launch a host of feeble imitators (step forward The Jags and The Vapors). Of course, Costello’s raw voice is simply perfect for the job, a stunning combination of vocal range and sneering attitude that is against virtually everything.

In fact, Elvis Costello’s style is firmly anti-heroic and he resolutely refuses to glamourise himself. His compositions are like barbed, personal missiles aimed at friends, lovers, enemies and, well, everyone really. “Me and You (Against the World)”, as Joe Jackson, one of his better copycats, would later sing. However, what saves Costello from merely being a hateful figure is that he is just as honest and brutal towards himself. On “Hand in Hand”, he bitterly spits out, “Don’t you know I’m an animal?”, and he is only marginally less scathing on “Lipstick Vogue”, when he snarls, “Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being”.

"It's the truth, you will believe, Steve Nieve"

Costello makes it abundantly clear that he is suspicious of the new showbiz world he finds himself in. Whereas many of the relationship songs on the album deal with the fear of rejection, paradoxically there is also a palpable fear of success on the tracks that potently satirise fame and the music business. Costello’s strained voice accentuates the tension and suffering of his protagonist, as he makes clear that the Material World is not for him. He explores the theme with vicious attacks on his own status as the next big thing in “Living in Paradise” (“Cause meanwhile up in heaven they are waiting at the gate/Saying, We always knew you'd make it/Didn't think you'd come this late”) and celebrity culture in the almost psychotic “Lipstick Vogue”.

In the awesome “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” he needs all of his resolve to resist the temptations of the bright lights: “Photographs of fancy tricks to get your kicks at sixty-six/He thinks of all the lips that he licks/And all the girls that he's going to fix/She gave a little flirt, gave herself a little cuddle/But there's no place here for the mini-skirt waddle/Capital punishment, she's last year's model/They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie/I don't want to go to Chelsea/Oh no it does not move me/Even though I've seen the movie”. The lyrics portray a claustrophobic paranoia, while the anxiety is developed by the taut, ska-influenced groove.

"A jaundiced worldview"

The pent-up scorn and anger that Costello so obviously feels is sprayed out in every track, even the slower, quieter ones, with “Hand in Hand” demonstrating the sheer force of his will, “No, don't ask me to apologise/I won't ask you to forgive me/If I'm gonna go down/You're gonna come with me”. The blistering indictment of everyone and everything that stands in his way rages on in the kinetic, hypnotic “Lipstick Vogue” when he yells, “You say I've got no feelings/This is a good way to kill them” and the deceptive “Lip Service” (“is all you’ll ever get from me”).

Even the nervy “The Beat”, which sees him wrestling with loneliness and insecurity (“I don't go out much at night/I don't go out much at all/Did you think you were the only one/Who was waiting for a call”), is fundamentally a tale of sexual frustration that brims with naked aggression and nervous energy, as he contemplates the emptiness of meaningless nightclub encounters: “See your friends - treat me like a stranger/See your friends - despite all the arrangements/See your friends - nothing here has changed/Just the beat”.

"Clowntime is over"

Most adolescent songs are about desire, but Costello’s manifesto is the antithesis of wanting something (or someone). His focus on repulsion is neatly encapsulated in the album’s opening lines, “I don't wanna kiss you/I don't wanna touch/ I don't wanna see you/Cause I don't miss you that much.”, which is a bold denial of yearning. This track, “No Action”, is a fine example of Costello’s ability to pen a harsh song about life’s negatives and is entirely appropriate for this album’s message of “don’t wants”. Examples abound throughout: “I don't want to check your pulse/I don't want nobody else/I don't want to go to Chelsea”; “I don't wanna be hung up, strung up/When you don't call up”; and “Don't say you love me when it's just a rumour”. Costello chooses not to fantasise about his unrequited desire, but to savour the exquisite torture of prolonged frustration.

Maybe that’s why this record at times can sound like a lengthy misogynistic tirade. Costello’s biographer wrote, “There is little point in denying that many lyrical images of his early songs attest to a barely contained contempt for women”. In Costello’s world, women are usually painted as one-dimensional tricksters who use their looks to ensnare men, pretending to love while planning their escape. Even the album’s title “This Year’s Model” could be a reference to the world’s oldest profession. His venomous attitude towards the opposite sex is apparently most evident in “This Year’s Girl” with its take-no-prisoners attitude: “See her picture in a thousand places/Cause she's this year's girl/You think you all own little pieces/Of this year's girl/Forget your fancy manners/Forget your English grammar/Cause you don't really give a damn/About this year's girl”. However, this could just as easily be interpreted as a condemnation of the commercial world. Costello is nothing if not an equal opportunity hater.

"Mystery Dance"

Despite all this resentment, nobody was more adept at sugaring a bitter pill than Costello. He possessed a superlative talent for contrasting (and disguising) his withering words with irresistibly infectious melodies, playing the traditional pop misfit better than anyone. Just look at how the cheerful, catchy tune of “Living in Paradise” provides some sort of respite from the song’s tormented message of wanton betrayal, “You better have your fun before it moves along/And you're already looking for another fool like me”. Similarly, while the violence of “Hand in Hand” is being described (“Don't you know I got the bully boys out/Changing someone's facial design”), Steve Nieve’s organ provides a sweet, carnivalesque background to the ferocity.

Costello himself argued, “There is less humour on This Year’s Model than on My Aim Is True. It’s more vicious overall, but far less personal”. While most would agree that it’s a vicious record, where it’s at its most malicious is when it’s dealing with fractured relationships, so it doesn’t feel any less personal. In many ways, it’s a quintessential break-up album – “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” for the punk era, if you will – with most of the tracks either cruel tirades against former lovers or anxious entreaties about potential romances. These are indeed songs for the broken hearted, albeit from the perspective of a disgusted, enraged Romeo: “And I think about the way things used to be/Knowing you with him is driving me crazy/Sometimes I phone you when I know you're not lonely/But I always disconnect it in time” (“No Action”).

"Live and dangerous"

Actually, some might say that Costello perhaps protests too much. On closer examination, the album’s derisive critique of relationships masks our hero’s need for love. He’s a mass of contradictions, so in “Pump It Up” he can’t make up his mind what he wants: “She's been a bad girl/She's like a chemical/Though you try to stop it/She's like a narcotic/You wanna torture her/You wanna talk to her”. From proclaiming that “No, I don't want anybody/Saying you belong to me”, he immediately argues the opposite, “I don't like those other guys looking at your curves/I don't like you walking round with physical jerks”. Even in the nasty “Lip Service”, he ends up with a plea, “But if you change your mind/You can send a little letter to me”. Costello had already revealed his emotional bluffing and crossed signals in “The Beat”, when he admitted, “I don't wanna be a lover/I just wanna be your victim”. He so badly wants to negate his cynical views on love, but when any hope fizzles out, he resorts to aggression – of the verbal variety.

The rise of Elvis Costello coincided, spookily enough, with the death of Elvis Presley, which took place a month after “My Aim Is True” was released. Although “The King” had been responsible for some of rock & roll’s finest moments, he had become a bloated parody of himself and was one of the symbols of over-indulgent excess that punk was so keen to replace, as was so memorably chronicled by Brighton’s Peter and the Test Tube Babies: “Elvis had a heart attack/Cause he got so bleeding fat/He weighed nearly half a ton/He looked more like a pregnant mum”.

"The breakthrough album"

Perhaps more relevantly, the late 70s were a time of enormous social change, as the Thatcher years began. This signaled the awakening of social conscience among Britain’s youth in response to the divisive policies of the Conservative government and Elvis Costello was among the most acidic and articulate of commentators. A few years later, he would make his feelings about Mrs. Thatcher absolutely clear: “When they finally put you in the ground/I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down/When England was the whore of the world/Margaret was her madam”.

The political commentary on “This Year’s Model” is restricted to “Night Rally”, which touches on a fascination/hatred for Nazi Germany that pretty much defines the next album “Armed Forces” (originally entitled “Emotional Fascism”). It conveys a warning in a disturbing, but clever way by using powerful imagery, such as “Everybody's singing with their hand on their heart/About deeds done in the darkest hours/That's just the sort of catchy little melody/To get you singing in the showers”. There is little doubt about what Costello is talking about here, but he is also comparing those atrocities with the contemporary rise of the Right in England: “I would send out for assistance, but there's someone on the signal wire/And the corporation logo is flashing on and off in the sky/They're putting all your names in the forbidden book/I know what they're doing, but I don't want to look”.

"From a whisper to a scream"

However, the social commentary is never rammed down your throat – Costello is far too good a songwriter to fall into that trap. More than any other musician, he is able to successfully combine personal truths with political views, yet never appearing at all self-indulgent. His lyrics are always elegantly constructed and incisively insightful without ever being too trite or obvious and every song includes numerous quotable lines: “He's got the keys to the car/They are the keys to the kingdom” (“No Action”) and “Things you see are getting hard to swallow/You're easily led, but you're much too scared to follow” (“You Belong To Me”). Many lines contain a double meaning: “Every time I phone you/I just wanna put you down” (“No Action”) and “Sometimes I think that love is just a tumour/You've got to cut it out” (“Lipstick Vogue”). Costello’s unapologetic cynicism is more than matched by his black sense of humour and his jaundiced worldview – no meaningless rants from him.

A self-proclaimed “bug-eyed monster", Elvis Costello didn’t look like any one’s idea of a rock star (though Buddy Holly might have disagreed), but this was one guy you really did not want to mess with. He may look like a harmless geek on the album cover, but his lyrics are anything but gentle. Written in a poison pen, he unleashed venom-dipped darts in many directions, hitting every target with unerring accuracy. You might even say that his aim was true …

"You looking at me?"

Back in 1978, Elvis Costello remarked, “What I do is a matter of life and death. I don’t choose to explain it, of course. I’m doing it and I’ll keep doing it until someone stops me forcibly”. Over thirty years later, he is indeed still making music better than most, but “This Year’s Model” remains his finest hour (or, at least, thirty-six minutes). Others may prefer the more mature songwriting on “Trust”, the clearer production of “Imperial Bedroom” or even the pop masterpiece that was “Armed Forces”, but everybody would agree that Costello and the Attractions never rocked this hard again. For fans of music bursting with energy and intelligence, it really doesn’t get any better than this. It’s a truly brilliant, absolutely essential record. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has torn down the building.

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