New, meaty rock 'n' rollers are surfacing at a rate fast enough to make one giddily optimistic about the state of the art. The latest in this recent outpouring of healthy young blood is Elvis Costello, a 22-year-old from Liverpool who was working as a computer operator.
Costello adopted the famous first name before Presley's death, so there's no hint of joining the trend to cash in on the ghoulish commercialization of an idol. In fact, the direct connection between Costello's music and Presley's is minimal. Besides the name, all Costello has borrowed is a bit of an attitude, and that's been free for the taking since "That's Alright, Mama."
Actually, with his horn-rimmed glasses, short hair and sport jacket, Costello recalls Buddy Holly, and the sound of his voice is very much like Bruce Springsteen's. He wouldn't be happy about that last comparison, according to an interview I read, because Costello finds Springsteen's romanticizing of the street antithetical to his own vision. Indeed, Costello's imagery, instrumentation and song structure are much less fancified than Springsteen's and altogether truer to the bare-bones, rock 'em, sock 'em spirit of the music's origins. But they do sound alike.
My Aim Is True, Costello's debut album, is an American-sounding record through and through. Nary a trace of an English accent, and only the rarest, vaguest reference to topics British. One of the songs, "Watching the Detectives," a bit of rocking reggae, sounds like an episode of Kojak. It concerns a woman who flirts with the cops and is "filing her nails while they're dragging the lake," presumably for her ex.
All the songs have American R&B at their root, with Yankee traces such as Phil Spector ("No Dancing") and the Band ("Blame It On Cain") here and there. "Mystery Dance" contains the clearest Presley reference, copping the beginning of "Jailhouse Rock." With backup of drums, bass, guitar and occasional keyboard, the sound is kept deliberately coarse and primitive. Cutesy production tricks are right out. (The whispers mixed to sound like screams on "I'm Not Angry" are anything but cute.)
The songs themselves are of prime importance. The subjects are sometimes vague but they're built around sharp musical and lyrical hooks. A few of the songs address themselves to the frustration and embarrassment of not knowing how to make love, representing an unheard of honesty in the macho world of rock.
Costello's been writing for about eight years, apparently, but all the material on My Aim is True was composed within a few weeks of the first session. The title is a line from "Alison," the album's only ballad. This record really is right on target, and as prolific and proficient a rock craftsman as Costello seems to be, we can expect more bullseyes in the future.