"To be at all 'well known' was considered vulgar."
Anthony Powell, Venusburg
This not-wanting-to-be-famous stuff is provoking. It's easy for the British novelist Anthony Powell to sniff around the subject with amusement — novelists never have to come to terms with an audience as massive as that of a rock star. But Elvis Costello is another matter: My Aim Is True is an album of pungent rock & roll songs, and many of them sound like hits. This record has the richest, most intriguing set of lyrics of any since Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. Young deals with stardom by ignoring it, but Costello, already one of the greatest feisty rockers ever, wants to stand in the spotlight and beat the shit out of it. He works in the realm of sublime impossibility.
To a person of Powell's generation (he is 72), the sin of fame lies in its exposure of thoughts and actions that should — in a moral and socially correct sense — remain discreet. These are just the things that Costello, 22 years old, wants to toss in our face. No, the repulsion that this young Englishman feels for celebrity is for its privilege: All around him, he sees rock stars whose position does not oblige them to sustain the hard work that it took for them to become famous in the first place. Fame fosters laziness and dulls the creative rage on which great rock & roll feeds. These beliefs link Costello to English punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but those groups do without Costello's fascinating stylistic contradiction of the nihilism that his lyrics proclaim — his echoes of people like Buddy Holly, Van Morrison, Johnny Rivers, and Bob Dylan. And so, naturally. Elvis Costello makes his own bid for first fame: because it will allow him to be heard by a large audience, because it grants him some power to get back at a lot of people who have wronged him. He doesn't want to be famous so that he can isolate himself — it's isolation that all of his songs rail against. Isolation, and a few other things.
I said before that Elvis Costello seeks to expose private thoughts and actions. This isn't wholly accurate because it implies a kind of naughty daring that Costello might think beneath him. Where Johnny Rotten shrills with contempt at groupies (and groupies equal women for poor, wonderful Johnny), Elvis Costello is sorrowfully severe in, say, "Alison." His anger is specific, and he takes great pains to make clear, to us and to Alison, precisely what he resents — in this case, her blatant duplicity.
The punks frequently disseminate pure rage, to be used by the audience for its own purposes. For Costello, rage is far less potent and cathartic if it is that generalized; its ability to claim revenge is blunted when it is not specific. And so, although Costello is by no means a feminist sympathizer — like all hard-core romantics, he bases his world view on the old sexist system — he is startlingly decent. His values may be rigid, but they apply to everyone; cross him, be you woman or man, and you'll get cut. Eventually.
My Aim Is True has a thin, sharp sound. Costello's voice and lead guitar sit on top of the mix. The background instruments are either confidently spare or furiously busy, and both styles are perfectly correct for their respective songs. The retarded drum thwak that begins "Waiting for the End of the World" sounds like it's coming from the inside of a sealed oil drum. and it makes the stomach quiver in anticipation of Costello's menacing vocal.
Elvis Costello's vocals do a lot more than menace — he can croon with lunatic abandon ("Alison," "Sneaky Feelings") or yowl ("Miracle Man," "I'm Not Angry") in a voice that is all bold nasality. Sometimes that voice seems to emanate from a sinus in his horn-rims.
Costello's great accomplishment on this debut album is to blend bitter skepticism with romantic innocence. He is acutely aware of this paradox, arid, to protect its delicacy, he tries to bury the revealing awkwardness of personal history — on "Pay It Back," he sings "I wouldn't say I was raised on romance / Let's not get stuck in the past" — even as he captures precisely that. "Mystery Dance" is a nervous metaphor for a first sexual experience, "Less Than Zero" posits an affable fatalism, and "Miracle Man" decries a lover's unrealistic expectations. If the singer's subject matter leaps, his obsessions remain constant and thrilling in their unceasing intensity.
In this, as in so much else on My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello is admirable. Better yet, he is heroic, in both the classical and vulgar senses. It's been a long time since I've had a hero. I've got one now.