Let's hope Elvis Costello does not consider himself a serious person. My Aim is True (Columbia) is the British performer's debut LP, and, although the listener is soon convinced that Elvis must have borrowed at least some of his ammunition from one of our Southwestern black-and-white striped, bushy-tailed, odorous creatures, his target remains a mystery.
Side one begins with "Welcome to the Working Week," a drab little song about a drab subject, and things don't pick up for the next three numbers. Costello's music is reminiscent of the early '60s era. All those chord changes have the familiar ring of an old Herman's Hermits album. Not that the musical content is completely unenjoyable — one cannot help but be comfortable with riffs and melody lines that have appeared on so many other records.
Similarly, his vocal abilities are neither offensive nor spectacular, and it is here that Costello is most disappointing. Lyrically, he shows a lot of imagination, but he fails to accent his poetry with the vocal agility that emphasizes certain words or phrases to make them more vivid and meaningful. One wonders whether Costello thinks his "aim is true" because of some insight into the state of the world and human condition, or if he simply has been practicing in the men's room.
"Alison" is the first of the few songs in which Costello is convincing, combining creative and touching lyrics with a pleasant musical hook to form a very listenable experience. If this song is any indication of future Costello products, there may be some hope yet that, in time, he will combine his abilities to form an interesting sound.
Finishing off side one is "Watching the Detectives," a song presumably written with the recent Ronnie Zamora court case in mind. It starts with guitar work straight out of the Surf Era, and one expects, or at least hopes, that at any time Costello will break into "Pipeline" to let us know that it was only a put-on.
Side two is highlighted by "Mystery Dance," an upbeat Chuck Berry-style number (which also just happens to be the shortest cut on that side). For us old-time social malcontents, it brings forth visions of Frank Zappa and the Mother's now classic Freak Out album. In fact, every song on his album sounds like something familiar, from The Byrds sound of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" to the "Louie Louie" beat and melody of "Waiting For the End of the World," and one could probably spend a pleasant afternoon playing "name that tune" with it.
With a limited number of musical notes available, no one can expect an artist to be completely original in everything he does, and many, including Costello, are successful in putting a personal touch on an old theme in places. But in the long run, it is newness which makes for the kind of success that lasts, and that's what is absent in this record.
Visually, Costello comes across as the little cuff-jeaned, pigeon-toed kid who always got picked on in school. The older listener might see him as a Bill Haley and the Comets caricature, while the younger audience might identify him as a watered down version of the punkrock social anti-hero.
All this might yet work in Costello's favor if he would crack a smile, at least on the album cover, to let us in on the humor we hope he has. Taken tongue-in-cheek, this album with lyrics like: "the angels wanna wear my red shoes" could be fun and worthwhile listening, but Costello remains stoic, serious and impersonal throughout, and his message remains in doubt. The real question might well be if the listener will find him a mystery worth solving.