Listening to Elvis Costello is like walking down a dark, empty street and hearing another set of heels.
So began Kit Rachlis' Rolling Stone review of This Year's Model, the second album by Elvis Costello, and the first where Elvis was joined by his most famous backing band, The Attractions. Someone familiar with Costello only via his collaborations with such luminaries as Burt Bacharach and Allen Touissant, or because of his marriage to Diana Krall, might be surprised to read that Costello was capable of such power.
But Rachlis didn't stop there:
His music doesn't make you dance, it makes you jump. It doesn't matter that he's stalking his obsessions and not you, because nobody ought to be this sure of his obsessions. But Costello appears determined never to reach that age when, as Joan Didion once put it, "the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not." This Year's Model, his second album in less than a year, is Costello's attempt to make certain those wounds stay open.
It's hard to express in words how exciting this album sounded when it was first released. Costello's first album, released in the fall of 1977, was great — no question about it. But little on that album prepared the listener for what This Year's Model would sound like. There was a hint in December, when Costello appeared on Saturday Night Live for what became a legendary performance, beginning the song "Less Than Zero," and a few bars in telling the audience, "sorry... there's no reason for us to do this song," and then tearing into a ferocious version of "Radio, Radio," which would become the anchor song on the new album. While Lorne Michaels came close to a stroke in the control room, wondering whether to pull the plug, Elvis and the Attractions tore into the song with a fury, with Costello literally spewing the venom that lay behind the strongest words on the album:
I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they'd never seen me
You either shut up or get cut out,
they don't wanna hear about it,
it's only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
tryin' to anesthetize the way that you feel
It's anger like that which fuels This Year's Model — the edge in Costello's voice that, even though there was much great music to come (and probably still is to come), has never quite sounded like it did then. Costello was mad at the world, and it showed:
I don't want to see you 'cause I don't miss you that much
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
I'd do anything to confuse the enemy
No, I don't want anybody saying
"You belong to me, you belong to me"
If I'm gonna go down
You're gonna come with me
Lip service is all you'll ever get from me
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You've got to cut it out
I mean, come on...who would have thought this guy would later aspire to becoming this generation's Cole Porter?
And note for note, word for word, the Attractions match Costello's verbal venom — Steve Nieve's farfisa organ from hell, and the rhythm section of Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums sound as if they're trapped in a room on fire, desperately making any sound they can to alert someone that they're about to perish in the flames.
It sounded great then, and it sounds great now — in fact, if it were released tomorrow, it would be the freshest thing out there.