In my review of Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993), I wrote about the chances I'm willing to give a musician when I don't especially like the first album I hear. It's because of reservations regarding McLachlan's Surfacing (1997) that I never actually sought out another of her albums, only picking up Fumbling Towards Ecstasy because it was cheap.
Well, there's no one to whom I've given more chances than Elvis Costello. In past years, I've picked up five different Costello albums, ultimately finding them either wildly inconsistent (1979's Armed Forces, 1986's Blood & Chocolate, 1991's Mighty Like a Rose) or consistently boring (1986's King of America, 1998's Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted From Memory). There's not one I can say with confidence that I like, and yet every time, after each listen, I added another Costello album to the list.
Why? I think it's because Costello always comes across as someone I should like — a smart, talented, versatile songwriter with a unique voice and an extraordinary musical vocabulary. And his best moments are genuinely terrific, like "Accidents Will Happen" from Armed Forces and "The Other Side of Summer" from Mighty Like a Rose. Each time I listen to an Elvis Costello album, I'm left with the belief that there is some Costello album out there I will adore — I just haven't found it yet.
Even so, chances are not infinite, and I decided after Painted From Memory that I was only giving Costello one more. A lot of people argue that the best Costello album is the first: 1977's My Aim Is True. So if there was to be only one to decide Costello's fate in my collection, it seemed fitting that it should be that one.
Knowing Costello to the extent I do, I was expecting energetic, and I was expecting punchy. What I was not expecting in My Aim Is True was the degree of fifties influence. Maybe I should have, given the cover photo of Costello in his Buddy Holly glasses, but I suppose the look at this point is so consistent with Costello that I didn't make the connection that might have been made in 1977. In any case, what's immediately apparent is that the fifties backdrop works for Costello. On My Aim Is True, what Costello crafts is a series of quick, well-constructed pop songs, delivered with energy and just a bit of an edge. This is perhaps most apparent in songs like "Blame It On Cain," with a guitar part that recalls a different Elvis, and the wildly upbeat "Mystery Dance," a song about losing one's virginity that lasts about as long as that takes to happen.
Of course, the album is not pure pastiche. Costello's strength here is melding this classic craft with his voice. But even so, it's interesting that an album like My Aim Is True has been considered punk — almost insistently, as in Allmusic's review of the album. Part of this is likely the attitude, and part of it is that punk as a genre was far more diverse in the late 1970s than it is today. From the modern perspective, though, I'd argue that this is really a pop album. "No Dancing" is an especially fine example of this. A song I feel like I've heard before (or else it sounds a lot like another Costello song), the fifties influence is definitely there, but at heart it's really just a great showing of then-contemporary songcraft. "Pay It Back," "Blame It On Cain," and "Sneaky Feelings" all wear their influences on their sleeves a lot more obviously, but that's not a complaint. They're fun songs.
Certainly part of the reason I wasn't expecting this sound is because the album's best-known tracks aren't really from that same world. The best song here is certainly "Alison" — never a major hit (and Costello was never a major hit-maker), but a beautiful composition and the album's most emotionally engaging piece. Costello's deep, unusual, and frequently underappreciated voice works well for this one, well complementing the emotional tug of the unexpected chord changes of the chorus. If the majority of this album's tracks show a skilled craftsman, "Alison" is the track that really reveals something more. And while it doesn't emerge from quite the same influences as the songs that surround it, it does feel organic to the album.
"Watching the Detectives" doesn't so much. That's not to say that it isn't a strong song, because it is, but honestly the reggae sound somewhat conflicts with the overall mood. It was not a surprise to learn that "Watching the Detectives" was not originally a part of the album, instead launching first as a non-album single. If nothing else, though, it shows the versatility. We see that also in "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," another of Costello's better known songs and more of a straight-ahead pop song.
Really, there's not a lot here that doesn't work. There are a few tracks on the album, like opener "Welcome to the Working Week" and "Mystery Dance," that are so brief that they feel as though they end prematurely — as if most artists would toss in an instrumental break and another chorus to round things out. But they sound fine. And I also quite like the intense, compelling "I'm Not Angry," written, of course, from the perspective of someone who really, really is.
So short response to this album: Finally. An Elvis Costello album I can say, without question, that I like. Here's the funny thing though: Whereas every previous disappointing Costello album has left me with a desire to try another one, this satisfying Costello album has me feeling just the opposite. Maybe it's because My Aim Is True, while definitely good, still didn't blow me away. There are no songs of the caliber of "Accidents Will Happen" and "Oliver's Army" from Armed Forces. There's nothing here I adore. And if this is the very best Elvis Costello, then maybe it still is just a little bit disappointing.
But I don't feel disappointed. So I think my reaction, instead, is simply that of reaching the end of my quest. I wanted to find a good Costello album, and I kept believing it was out there somewhere, and finally I have it. Is there another? Maybe. But one out of six is not good odds for me as a listener. And more than that, this makes sense to me as a stopping point. If I've given Costello too many chances, which is something I sometimes wonder, then why not end things on a positive note?
If I find another Costello album for a great price, I'll pick it up. For now, though, I'm satisfied to close things out with a collection of smart, punchy pop from a musician who, while never quite what I've hoped he would be, delivered a clear winner in My Aim Is True.