At first glance, Elvis Costello is the unlikeliest rock hero of the decade. Pigeon-toed and scrawny, with a nose too long and a chin too weak, he has none of the physical beauty or sexual magnetism that are usually prerequisites for teen worship. Yet in his native Britain, he is already generating enough media attention to make his professed greatest fear — to be cast as elder statesman for England's New Wave rockers seem less like publicity-minded provocation and more like justifiable concern.
In fact, Costello is the press agent's dream: a galvanic artist whose screwball appearance only heightens the force of his debut album, My Aim Is True. If he appears to suffer from temporal dislocation, the visual symptoms only reinforce his music's rock classicism. His narrow lapels, cuffed jeans, and battered old Fender Jazz guitar provide a '50s link that his oversized horn rims and mangled pompadour complete. He looks a bit like Buddy Holly, and he plays rhythm chords on the Fender that evoke Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.
His songs are ripe with a sense of history and a barbed wit, but he is neither a nostalgic impersonator nor a parodist. Visual and musical echoes of the '50s and '60s are undeniably there, but as a singer and writer, he appears to have absorbed his influences enough to obscure any singular models. His rasping, often glottal singing invites inevitable comparisons with Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, and Graham Parker, yet Costello arrogantly dismisses any debts to those artists. (He says Springsteen is a lousy lyricist and claims he's never even heard Morrison's Astral Weeks.) His songs are indeed tougher and his lyrics more economical than the briefest Springsteen anthems, his singing never wanders far enough from the beat to follow Morrison's vocal mien, and his caustic perspective denies any link to Parker's underlying romanticism and introspection.
Nor does Costello typify New Wave's assumed flamboyant primitivism. His record may sound initially jarring, due to the simplicity of the arrangements and Nick Lowe's atmospheric production, but both playing and songwriting attest to a melodic sense forged directly from the best rock and pop sources. "Welcome to the Working Week," which opens the album, may carry a scathing contempt for middle-class verities, but it rocks like crazy and even manages to kid Costello's own imminent celebrity. It also clocks in at a minute and twenty seconds.
That tension between genuine rage and saving humor emerges as one of the album's, and the artists's, most convincing virtues. "Less than Zero" salts its blunt nihilism ("Everything means less than zero...") with a quirky surrealism as pithy and truly funny as some of Dylan's more whimsical mid-'60s mindgames, yet the wordless refrain is at least as close to simple r&b workouts. Such intriguing fusions of musical and verbal sense recur throughout. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," possibly the best cut, balances heartfelt lyricism and Byrds-meet-Merseybeat guitar against a vaguely Faustian legend of eternal youth spiced with some wonderful, deadpanned jokes. "Mystery Dance" takes a classic rock metaphor for sex and enlightenment to equally bizarre extremes, driven by a frantic rockabilly arrangement that is nearly indistinguishable from vintage Sun sides. "No Dancing" turns its title phrase into a double-edged hook through a small-scale approximation of Phil Spector's syncopated ballads, enabling Costello to both mock romance and reaffirm it at the same time.
Yet he never settles for mere cleverness. His verbal playfulness and sneering delivery are augmented by a striking poetic sense and genuine passion, and on the album's one ballad, "Alison," all of those qualities coexist: On the one hand, he offers absurd imagery ("Did you leave your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake?") with corny, garage band guitar glissandos, yet his exasperation with his lover reveals a tenderness most rock males can only feign.
Costello and Lowe have forsaken the precision and virtuosity of '70s pop in order to rediscover the raw vitality of rock. Whether American listeners will embrace Costello's feisty intelligence or Lowe's deliberately crude, exciting production style remains to be seen.