Somebody must have told Elvis Costello about "the Mystery Dance": sex. All about it. Told him, showed him — and burned him so badly that the idea of romance scares the living hell out of him, yet he can't get sex off his mind. On all but one song ("Radio, Radio," which doesn't appear on the British version), This Year's Model stays close to the thick of sexual warfare. Elvis vs. fear and lies, Elvis vs. anyone who gets close. Presumably, this album is not an autobiography of Declan Patrick McManus, happily married father of one, but of his stage persona "Elvis Costello." I just wonder where he gets so much venom.
This Year's Model shows none of the detachment of My Aim Is True. The band (Costello's own Attractions instead of the San Francisco band Clover) plays much harder, and the lyrics stay personal. No politics, very little philosophy (although "Night Rally" on the British version has a bit of both). Costello is still bugged by the same thing: "Knowing you're with him is driving me crazy" ("No Action"). This time, though, he won't "try to be amused" at rejection or infidelity. He cultivates his rage, to flash it at strangers, indiscriminately. Betrayed over and over again in the songs, Costello can barely contain himself.
Desire, fear, anger and guilt merge in these songs, and the mixture is volatile. Elvis equates lust with crime ("The Beat") and terrorism ("Lip Service"); he shouldn't be surprised when his partners turn out to be duplicitous ("Living in Paradise") or underage ("You Belong to Me"). No matter how many times Elvis sings "I don't wanna" on this lp, he can't escape his longing. "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor," Costello blurts in "Lipstick Vogue," but he has to "get to the slot machine" and "insert the token" anyway. His denials define his need. Even on the album's attempt at fairness, "This Year's Girl" — about a Farrah-type cover girl icon — Costello can't hold back lines like "You want her broken with her mouth wide open."
Although the rhythm track for "This Year's Girl" takes after Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" there's no way it, or any other song on This Year's Model, could sound as genial, superficially, as "Alison" or "Waiting for the End of the World." Costello is almost continuously savage. The lp's sole ballad, a standard 12/8 soul progression called "Little Triggers," snarls unmistakably, and when its chorus of Elvises sings "ooh," they sound like leashed, hungry Dobermans, not the Jordanaires. Mellow-sound airplay won't be forthcoming. Hence "Radio, Radio," a Springsteen/ Spectorized blast at programmers "trying to anesthetize the way that you feel." (This media paranoia serves as a respite of sorts from Elvis' consistent misogyny.)
Costello and the Attractions play mid-'60s dance music with afterburners blazing. Drums and guitar for weight and thrust, cheesy organ for maneuvering. "Pump It Up," a petrol-pusher's ode to masturbation, thumps like a subterranean homesick Stax track, and "Lip Service" is semi-gloss Searchers/Lovin' Spoonful pop. "The Beat"'s verses resemble Bacharach/David tunes, while "Living in Paradise" approaches reggae. Under Nick Lowe's production, Costello avoids New Wave monotony; these arrangements ambush you with carefully plotted dynamics. Lowe's tricks (the handclaps in "Lip Service," a fusillade of drums in "The Beat," multiple vocal overdubs on "No Action") are perfectly placed, although he does permit some utterly inept tambourine playing on "Hand in Hand." Costello has outgrown his Dylan worship; he sings in his own voice now. But his melodic gift is limited — he uses variations on the common descending scale so often that the exceptions ("Hand in Hand" and "No Action") seem catchy by contrast — so Lowe has to sneak in some instrumental hooks, too.
No doubt about it — This Year's Model rocks tough and committed. It is also so wrongheaded, so full of hatred, and so convinced of its moral superiority that it makes me uneasy. Costello's intelligence is evident in every lyric; it's easy to identify, for a little while, with his pained vindictiveness. I learned about love from pop songs, though, and these "don't tell me anything about it I don't know already." Costello distrusts his entire universe, particularly its female side, and I get the feeling negativity won't pull him through.