Review of This Year's Model
- Nick Kent
The Aesthetics of Frustration: Nick Kent details Elvis' uneasy Listening
by Nick Kent
There's only one real problem facing the reviewer assessing this, our El's second album, but if it's tricky enough to deal with then at least it's easy enough to define.
This Years Model, you see, is simply so ridiculously good that one's immediate inclinations are to clamber effusively over the top, superlative peaking superlative to the point where well meaning enthusiasm turns an unattractive tint of bloated sycophancy.
I was so awed at this record at one point that I was ready to blunder into that hoariest of cliches - the "brazen young troubadour as new Bob Dylan" line that has ended up blighting more than one or two young chappies' credibility count under a hailstorm of hyperbole.
Then again, the case history of Elvis Costello does tend to throw all, uh, "orthodox perspective" out of the window. It can't be much more than a year since Costello modestly announced his talents via the "Less Than Zero" single on Stiff.
The record was potent enough to cause initial minor-league cult interest although Costello's photogenic incongruities plus the presence of arch vinyl-jesters Nick Lowe and Jake Riviera caused most spectators to chuckle, as they acknowledged Costello as little more than another Stiff crazy gang product - talented, sure, but a touch heavy on the old Graham Parker, Van Morrison, etc. influences.
But then came the album, My Aim Is True, and then things began to happen. Aim stood out, even in the generally incendiary context of rock's newfound action. Costello was no longer just some quirky Lowe invention but a veritable walking time bomb, a man possessed and loaded with truly dangerous visions.
With Aim Costello established himself instantly as rock's most subversively obsessive artist of this decade. His "Sex" songs, for example, totally up-ended all the beef-cake posturings of the medium's macho patent by instead honing in with brutal self-effacement on his chosen role as sexual incompetent, all trembling flesh, guilt-ridden, and down so far he couldn't even lick his wounds.
And when it came to "Love" Costello outdid even the perverse naked truth slant of the aforementioned genre by mating, in "Alison" at least, an exquisitely tender melody with a portrait of passion turned so ugly and desperate that the singer could only osmose a mixture of disgust and despair, both harrowing and heartwrenching, at the consequences.
Anyway, My Aim Is True scored a spectacular victory last year, not merely as a critics' fave but also managing to shift a considerable weight of units both here and in The States (where even now it languishes in the lower 40's).
Its often savage extremities of subject matter and attitude of framed around a needle-sharp sensibility for strong musical backdrops, whether it was the raging rock swagger of "Mystery Dance" or the irrepressible riff of "Miracle Man", straight through to Costello's oh-so-very-deft adoption of various prime mid-60's pop stylisations.
Aim hit you on so many levels that even if you happened to be repelled by the more extreme aspects (and I've met many - women, most often, as it happens - who find Costello's revenge/guilt fetish personna totally unappealing), you couldn't help but be impressed by some other area of the man's astonishing talents.
Aim hit the jackpot anyway - even finding itself cloistered in the hallowed precinct of rock's reactionary media bastion, Rolling Stone's five classic albums of '77, residing between the platinum pablum of Hotel California and Rumours no less.
And here's This Year's Model. A joyous event, this, a follow-up to a first-off classic that totally outstrips its predecessor (The Band's following Big Pink with their magnificent second album was another, albeit random, instance) in virtually every respect.
Costello himself is stronger, more abrasively confident in his vocal delivery, while his songs are almost all proverbial blitzers. However, arguably the decisive improvement is the change in back-up personnel.
For Aim Elvis was supported by West Coast exiles Clover who, though involved in a mere session-playing capacity, nonetheless consistently outdid themselves, providing some superbly emphatic playing. By the time the album had been released Costello had drawn together his own band, The Attractions, a corporate with their own sound and personality that gave a thrilling taster for things to come.
The Attractions, see, provided a tension for songs like "Waiting For The End Of The World" that gave the song's sentiments a gripping snap that the recorded version barely hinted at, while the newer pieces were imbued with such a shuddering intensity that the ensemble seemed at times to be working on some eerie level of telepathic interaction.
In this month's Playboy interview (easily his most revealing dialogue for over ten years) Bob Dylan described the sound he was aiming for during his cataclysmic mid-60's electric period. He stated that "the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was in the individual bands on the Blonde On Blonde album. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up."
What that "conjures up", in effect, is exactly the sound that Costello and The Attractions have consistently attained throughout the songs on This Years Model. "That wild mercury sound" is the perfect description for the powerdrive rush through the album's most immediately stunning achievements - the already much-lauded "Chelsea" and side two's "Lipstick Vogue".
The latter has long been a personal fave ever since I first heard it played live, and the album version eclipses even the manic imperiousness of the stage song. Firing off at a truly fearsome intensity, Costello and band interlock as taut as a clenched fist getting tighter and tighter until the veins bulge out like railroad tracks. Costello spits out some of his most vitriolic lines: "Don't say you love me when it's just a rumour / Don't say a word if there's any doubt / Sometimes I think that love is just a tumour / You've got to cut it out."
Meanwhile three tracks earlier the band have staged a similarly awesome assault on the senses with "Chelsea", a great, great single up there with "Positively 4th Street" and "Substitute".
Model is, by the way, similar to Aim in that it's instantly devastating moments tend to overshadow the rest. For at least a day I was transfixed between "Lipstick" and "Chelsea", only occasionally venturing elsewhere. Don't be fooled though - after a week spent with the record, its overall omnipotence is undeniable.
Fave tracks constantly change until virtually all 12 numbers rank level. Next, for example, it was "This Year's Girl" with its Beatles cop intro, hammerhead drumming and rock steady melody supporting El's sly observations on all the Farrah Fawcett-Majors of this world: "A bright spark might cut a mark in this year's girl / You see yourself rolling on the carpet with this year's girl. . .".
Then came "Living In Paradise" with its contagious limbo shuffle jerking seductively into a raging power-pop (not the trendy cliche but the real thing this time, hepcats) chorus with Costello dissecting the sick veneer of Los Angeles luxury, playing with the corporation boss, nudging with a perverse cuckold twist in "Later in the evening when the arrangements are made / I'll be at the keyhole outside your bedroom door / 'Cos I'm always the first to know whenever the plans are laid. . . You think I don't know the boy that you're touching / But I'll be at the video and I will be watching."
And there's "Little Triggers", the album's ballad and placed, strategically perhaps, at the same juncture as "Alison" on Aim. At first the song disappoints - a Solomon Burke type soul thing with quirky, trembling flesh imagery. Later one uncovers a gorgeously understated melody with moments that nod towards the influence of Burt Bacharach, whose "I Just don't Know What To Do With Myself" Costello performed exquisitely on the Live Stiffs album.
"Pump It Up" is steamy and sensual with a Dylanesque raunch quotient. Like "You Belong To Me", it is a hot-blooded example of rhythm and blues stylisation, though both songs tend to impress considerably less within the so virulently fraught confines of the album.
Finally, straight after "Lipstick", Costello chooses to exit with the grim portents of "Night Rally". Just as Aim's finale "Waiting For The End Of The World" portrayed a doomy and all too realistically ominous scene of social breakdown/apocalypse, so Model leaves the listener unnerved by an all too frighteningly vivid image of the National Front gaining influence.
"Everybody's ringing their hands on their hearts about decency in the darkest hours / It's just the sort of catchy little melody to have singing in the showers". No bloated pontificating here, no "Eve Of Destruction" hysteria - Costello simply sees all the signs, strings them together and rounds off a chilling scene with "You think they're so dumb / You think they're so funny / Until they've got you running to their night rallies."
The title phrase repeats itself over and over whilst the organ motif rings out like a siren, leaving one disoriented and not a little scared.
So that's This Years Model for you. Nothing's really changed, Costello's bitterness and obsessive vitriol is still there but, like Pete Townshend and Dylan before him, Costello knows that the true essence of rock as potent music is as a vehicle for frustration.
Costello is currently the best. There's simply no-one within spitting distance of him. He has his finger on the pulse of this desperate era and his perceptions are so disquieting because all too often they're too damn real to be strenously ignored.
Meanwhile Model is just too powerful, too dazzling to be ignored or sidestepped.
Uneasy listening. The perfect antidote to the placebo syndrome. Recoil at your peril.