Elvis Costello? On Stiff Records? with tiny printing all over his album cover saying "Elvis Is King"?
Before you start laughing and cavalierly dismiss my soon-to-begin discourse on why this is the most exciting debut I've heard all year, consider that CBS has signed Elvis and the rest of the Stiff roster for American distribution.
With plans to bring his debut album out in late fall (it is now available on import), those corporate heavyweights of mass culture apparently agree that Elvis is King.
Who is Elvis Costello? Good question, and unfortunately I haven't a clue about the answer. I do know that the tunes on his album reveal him to be a particularly strong songwriter with an ear for musical and lyrical hooks.
Just consider the titles to a few of the tunes: "Welcome to the Working Week," "(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Waiting for the End of the World." Then, give them a listen.
Encountering any new performer, I am first struck, after assessing the act's recorded sound, by the quality of the songwriting. For most performers, the caliber of original tunes initially is shaky, with a sprinkling of winners through the first few albums until the artist has matured to the point of creative consistency.
Happily, this isn't always the rule.
Graham Parker's debut album, Howlin' Wind, and Tom Petty's recent release come to mind. Here were writers fully matured before they even hit the studio, and such winning assurance on a debut blows me over every time.
Elvis Costello stands up admirably in this company. His songs are basic rock and roll.
Vocally, he is reminiscent of Parker, and it is a tune off Howlin' Wind that best describes the charm of Costello's deft songwriting craft. The tune is "Between You and Me," and was a demo tape Parker made in an off-the-cuff manner that couldn't be bettered when he and the Rumour sat down to re-record it for the album.
The charm of that tune was its mood of instant inspiration, as if neither Parker nor the band knew precisely where the song was going — but that they instinctively knew it was on the right track.
Costello's performance mirrors this sort of artistic instinct. His songs are small jewels, with tune and lyric honed down to the bare minimum that best showcases their true charm. The four-piece band jumps into "Red Shoes" with a tried-and-true R&B kick, and like a hot dog fitting into a bun, Costello's eccentric vision fits the riffs: "I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused. 'Cause since their wings got busted, you know the angels want to wear my red shoes."
The emotional intensity isn't even dulled when he is met with the stiff resistance of a two-timing girlfriend, whom he baits — "everybody loves you so much, girl, I just don't know how you stand the strain."
But after all is said and done, Costello is a dyed-in-the-wool romantic. On "Alison," the laconic harmony-adorned ballad that was his second British single success, he sings of his private love for a woman who won't give him the time of day. "Alison, I know the things you're going through. Alison, my aim is true."
My Aim Is True is the name of the album, and when CBS unleashes the thatch-haired, cuffed-jeaned Costello on the unaware American market, he should rightfully strike a bull's-eye with his emotionally cryptic songs. He's already gotten me through the heart, and the pain is as sweet as it is sharp.