Review of Rhino re-releases of This Year's Model, Blood And
Chocolate and Brutal Youth
Washington Post, 2002-02-13
- David Segal
'This Year's Model': Still All the Rage
Re-Released Costello Shimmers in the Rearview
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2002; Page C05
Next Tuesday, Rhino Records is re-releasing Elvis Costello's caustic
classic "This Year's Model," and the timing, even if inadvertent,
is perfect. Costello's sophomore effort, which was named Rolling Stone's
Album of the Year in 1978, is like a heart-shaped box filled with rotting
cod instead of chocolates, and like all great anti-Valentines, this
one arrives a good five days after Feb. 14.
It's part of a repackaging of Costello's back catalogue, which Rhino
is issuing three albums at a time over the course of several months.
("Brutal Youth" and "Blood & Chocolate" are
in this, the second batch, and "Armed Forces," "Imperial
Bedroom" and "Mighty Like a Rose" are coming in a group
sometime later in the year.) The why-bother bar is set pretty high for
all this, because Costello's first 11 albums already got the re-release-with-bonus-track
treatment from Rykodisc in the early '90s.
To clear this hurdle, Rhino is including a second CD with every album,
offering demos, B-sides and previously unreleased tracks that will be
new to all but Costello's most rabid bootleggers. For "This Year's
Model," that means seven cuts that Rykodisc didn't tender, including
demos for "You Belong to Me" and "Radio, Radio,"
a couple of live numbers from the Stiffs Live Tour of 1977, as well
as a version of the Damned's "Neat, Neat, Neat," which was
part of a single that came with the British edition of the album.
But what makes "Model" worth yet another look is the original
songs, which have lost miraculously little of their bite nearly a quarter-century
after they first sank their teeth in our ankles. Costello at the time
was just 23 years old, a former computer-punch-card operator for Elizabeth
Arden cosmetics, a suburban lad who'd become one of pop's most praised
commodities thanks to his debut, "My Aim Is True." But applause
seemed only to infuriate the former Declan McManus; instead of a gracious
curtsy, "Model" amped up the anger.
If you never saw the album cover -- which features Costello standing
behind a camera and wearing a wedding band -- you'd never guess this
was the work of a married man. Nearly half the songs on "Model"
refer to masturbation, and in all but a few Elvis is the rejected swain,
pleading for another chance ("Lipstick Vogue") or hanging
up the phone just as a former girlfriend picks up the receiver ("No
Action"). No one before or since has given such eloquent, bitter
voice to the self-loathing of hopeless teenage love, or the torturous
gamesmanship of dating.
"I call you Betty Felon because you are a pretty villain / And
I think that I should tell them that you'd make a pretty killin' "
he sings on "Living in Paradise," during one of his more playful
moments. "Don't act like you're above me / Just look at your shoes,"
he begs on the less playful "Lip Service." And there's plenty
of flat-out desperation here, including this withering sentiment from
"Lipstick Vogue": "Sometimes I think that love is just
a tumor / You've got to cut it out."
But for all its acid, "Model" is a pop record, and a smooth,
glistening pop record, too. That's its subversive little secret -- you
can ignore its resentments and dance to it. Costello wasn't a punk and
never recorded anything as anarchic as the Sex Pistols, but he fastened
punk's energy and venom to the comfort food of '60s pop, in particular
the Beatles, "Aftermath"-era Rolling Stones and the Small
Faces, a band that, by Costello's own admission, he was shamelessly
cribbing from at the time. The collapsing drumbeat that marks the end
of "No Action," for instance, is lifted straight from the
Small Faces' "Tin Soldier."
Costello also lucked into a dream team of backup players. For most
songs, the Attractions -- bassist Bruce Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve,
and drummer Pete Thomas -- seem locked in a competition to outshine
both each other and Elvis. (The trio would later make an album called
"Mad About the Wrong Boy.") Much of the time, the three of
them sound like kids trying to nudge their way to the front of a class
photo; at one point on "You Belong to Me," Thomas is doing
a diving bass run that's straight from the Who's playbook, while Nieve
hammers incessantly at the top note on his keyboard.
The rivalry never steps on the music, perhaps because Nick Lowe was
refereeing this game. "Model" is the moment when Lowe comes
into his own as a producer. Putting a cheerful spin on mordant thoughts
was his speciality, a trick he'd been performing for years on his own
songs, including the anti-label diatribe "I Love My Label."
Lowe gives "Model" a gloss that added snarl to Costello's
voice and he made Nieve's Farfisa organ sound so menacing and beautiful
that a few hundred skinny-tie bands would soon try to imitate it.
None of them would come close, and within a few years Elvis himself
had forsaken '60s pop in favor of music that reflected his passion for
R&B and later country. For sheer rage, he'd never approach anything
close to "Model" again. But it has enough well-crafted hostility
to stand for the ages, and it's still the ex-lover's forget-me-not that
you can't get out of your head.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at
202-334-9000 and press 8183.)
© 2002 The Washington Post Company