If there were such a thing as a death wish for albums, this one would have it — it is a record that fairly thumbs its nose at the Intelligent Rock Listener, inside and out. The cover art, for one thing, is nightmarish — bright red lettering, a black-and-white checkerboard pattern spelling out "Elvis is King," and Costello himself leering out from a lurid yellow background. He clutches a Fender menacingly, and leans forward in that half-aggressive pigeon-toed stance so dear to the hearts of '50s rockers; his eyes are genuinely loony, wild and dangerous-looking, behind huge Buddy Holly horn-rims. No doubt about it — this guy is strange. Musically, too, the album has more than its share of outward cliches, from Phil Spectorish drum riffs to high-school rhythm guitar licks and doo-wop backing vocals.
All in all, the initial impression almost has to put the listener off. But the only way to appreciate what a really good record this is is to look past all the misanthropic window-dressing. The key to this album is, indeed, its misanthropy. This is certainly the biggest lyric theme; unfortunately, it's also possibly the biggest problem people will have in accepting it.
Elvis Costello is a British rocker in the grand tradition of his namesake, but he infuses that tradition with a deep and unsubtle sense of '70s neurosis. Look at his picture; listen to his lyrics. He is (or would have us believe he is) far gone in bitterness and anger at the world — so far gone, in fact, that he can sit back more or less comfortably and point an accusing finger at the rest of us. His vantage point is that of the observer once as deeply embroiled in craziness as the people he castigates but now above and beyond it all.
This perspective comes across strongly in Costello's lyrics. "Welcome to the Working Week," the album's opening track, is at 1:22 its shortest cut and an introduction to what's to come. A driving middle-tempo rocker with drums mixed way up and biting guitar riffs, it's an ironic salute to a friend's new success. The message is clear — "Deal with it if you can."
"Blame It On Cain" shows a strong persecution complex ("Blame it on Cain, don't blame it on me..."); "Sneaky Feelings" is a bouncy, silly tune about paranoia and screwed-up human emotions; "Pay It Back" is about vengeance; "(Everything Means) Less Than Zero" speaks for itself.
One doesn't have to look too hard, obviously, to see where Costello's coming from. The only problem with such a direct and insistent attack is that the listener may well find himself sated with the singer's cynicism before long. In this case, that would be a real shame — there's more to this album than the crazed rumblings of an embittered anachronism. There are three cuts, especially, that deserve a careful second listening. They're not only the record's most interesting expressions of Costello's viewpoint — they point up strengths, both lyric and musical, obscured elsewhere.
"Mystery Dance," a one-and-a-half minute gem, is straight-ahead rock and roll, the kind of fast, urgent and purely visceral rock where the cleverness of the lyric is no more than a pleasant but totally superfluous surprise. Costello proves here that his singing is equal to the trickiest tempo and the rawest lyrics; his guitar playing is a wonder, a crashing solo in the best '50s tradition. "I'm Not Angry" gives further evidence of his instrumental strength; here too the guitar work is excellent, searing and fluid in a more contemporary style. It's a truly creepy song — the chorus is a very insistent and angry-sounding repetition of the words "I'm not angry any more," and the contrast is chilling. The rest of the lyrics stress again the image of the bitter observer past the point of involvement.
I could hear you whispering as I crept by your door
So you found some other joker who could please you more...
I know what you're doing, I know where you've been
I know where, but I don't care
Cause there's no such thing as an original sin
I'm not angry...
It's an apocalyptic and dark-sounding song, reminiscent of Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower," and Costello proves in it that his music is more than just a clever recreation of vintage rock.
"Alison" is the album's most interesting song. A ballad, it's unsettling in the same way as "I'm Not Angry" — what Costello says works at cross-purposes with how he says it. The music is quiet and lyrical, and another aspect of Costello's instrumental skill is revealed in the reflective, jazz-like guitar figures he plays under the vocal. The words, however, belie the tradition of rock and roll ballads to lost loves. Yes, there's sadness there for what used to be — but the norm in classic rock lyrics is the graceful acquiescence, and Costello will have none of it. His sorrow takes the form of a quietly vicious attack on the girl; the message is that he's on to her games and won't get burned again. The effect is really scary — the unexpected combination of a pretty melody and vindictive lyrics makes the song especially memorable.
In "Alison," as in "I'm Not Angry" and throughout My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello anticipates our reactions and responds by ringing changes on them. Comparisons are inevitable — to Presley, from whom he took his name; to Springsteen, and Mick Jagger, and Graham Parker, like all of whom he sounds; to the r&b revivalists, of whom he is certainly one; to the punks, of whom he is not. The comparisons will be made, but they will be unfair. They'll be easy handles for people who will be scared away by outward appearances and won't recognize this album for what it is — vibrant and really original rock and roll in a classic mold from a musician whose strong suit is his distrust of people and their ability to judge. What makes this album so different and so good is that Costello very consciously does not live up to the expectations he creates in us; he mocks them, and he perverts them, and in that way he exceeds them.