They say Elvis is king but for a long time that seemed like a fallacy. Look at it this way: Kings have kids called after 'em in every two bit ramshackle spot you can locate in their individual territories. It's in the very structure of things that their name becomes common currency, the property of the people to be used as often as the whim takes a new parent. Fact, it could be a useful barometer as to the popularity of a king to gauge the number of children called after him per day of his reign.
No, Elvis became deity. Not many people go around calling their kids Jesus, and it was the same with of El. Go on, tell us how many Elvis' you know Mmmm, well here's number two at last, and is he a welcome arrival!
Not that I'm the first to wax enthusiastic about the man. Not by half. The British music press, spearheaded by Mr. Nick Kent of NME have laid the proverbial red carpet in front of said Costello's feet, giving his every twitch rave reviews since he began raising his profile hardly a month ago. Since then there's been a front page in Sounds, the same in Melody Maker and a whole bushel of enthusiastic reviews in NME — by people as diverse as Nick Kent, Roy Carr, Angie Errigo, Charles Shaar Murray (earlier) and Julie Burchill as well. Varied appeal, huh?
And it fits. Costello's music, on the evidence of his first Stiff outpouring, transcends the internal divides that customarily factionalise the rock critical faculty. He ain't no New Wave superhero 'cept inasmuch as he's new. In that, he steps right up alongside Graham Parker who came in at the beginning of the New Wave thing but who remained way, way above its often hysterical clamouring. Parker's got enough class not to have to get so riled.
Oh yeah... and before we go any further, Elvis Costello's name is one that's been bandied around as a possible surprise guest, to appear alongside Parker on the upcoming Lizzy Dalymount bill. If it's not him, someone's gotta bring him in soon...
The association with Parker is appropriate. As songwriters, they've got a good deal in common, naturally referring back to Van Morrison as a major source of inspiration. But like Parker, in his own inimitable fashion, Costello has assimilated the influences and moulded it into his own unique voice (in the widest sense) And yet he does often sound like both Morrison and Parker in turn. Nothing wrong with that.
So what is it that makes Elvis Costello special?
It's just that he's got a rare grasp of how to write songs that work on every level at once, that largely defy being broken down into separate elements for analysis.
Not that you can't do it — just that it doesn't adequately account for the greatness of the tracks. Look at the lyrics from "I'm Not Angry": "I know what you're doin / I know where you been / I know where but I don't care / 'cos there's no such thing as an original sin." Really clever. Great. But it's dry compared to the reality, which has a psychedelic influence somewhere between Hendrix and the Yardbirds It's also got a hook m the repeated phrase (in breathy tones) " I'm not angry... ", the insidiousness of which defies description.
And then there's the voice, which expresses the songs irony so suitably, through its suppressed rage.
Besides, the track is danceable. Costello, it seems, is determined to connect on every level — head, heart and feet'll be inspired before your evening's through listening to him. So mine have been.
It's this sense of internal balance that keeps My Aim is True so consistently up to the highest standard, with only one track (the last one) "Waiting For the End of the World" registering on the mediocre-meter. Not bad for a first album.
Considering that last factor, Costello's maturity is amazing. We're told he's twenty-two, but he doesn't particularly like talking about his past so we're not likely to find out much more We do also know, however, that prior to the current splurge, he was NOT a pro musician but a computer operator. We also know that he hasn't had much experience.
And we're able to safely use the word "mature" in relation to his songwriting!!
Costello writes about hum-drum working-day themes, especially the ones that most concern the majority of us, love and sex. Most often he's writing about failure and inadequacy, as in "Mystery Dance," a steaming jive-inspiring burst of basic rock 'n' roll (original sound and all).
It's about a guy who just can t get it together and the kind of situation he finds himself in when he tnes (too hard). There's an edge of psychosis to his plea: "Why don't you tell me about the Mystery Dance? / I wanna know about the Mystery Dance! / Why don't you show me? / 'Cos I tried and I tried and 'I'm still mystified / I can't do it anymore and I'm not satisfied."
Then there's "Alison," a smooth tear-jerker ballad which boasts the line from which the album title is taken in its chorus. "Alison / I know this world is killing you / Oh Alison / My aim is true." Costello sings it in a velvety bass voice, backed up by lyrical shadings on lead guitar. But again, it's about being let-down in love: "I hear you let that little friend of mine / take off your party dress." Uh oh...
"Sneaky Feelings" has a similar theme. It's about the insidious nature of deception in love — why don't we let all the feelings OUT? The scene is brilliantly set in the opening lines on the marriage go-round: "Everybody's breaking up someone else's home / 'Cos someone else has started breaking up their own..." This Elvis don't paint pretty pictures. He spits the lyrics out with Morrison-like conviction, a real R 'n' B growl, the snarl of the rock 'n' roll small guy.
Best of all, he's a writer who's still in contact. It's great to hear an album from someone who hasn't been cut off, insulated and isolated in the star capsule. I know it may not last for long but for now he's able to write songs like "Welcome to the Working Week": "Welcome to the working week / I know it don't thrill you / I hope it don't kill you / welcome to the working week / You gotta do it till you do it / till you better get to it..."
The same workingman's blues inspires the amazingly Band-like "Blame it on Cain." The chorus is great, about our need for a scapegoat. "Blame it on Cain / Don't blame it on me / It's nobody's fault / But we need somebody to hurt." But the pressure is felt individually. "I think I lived too long / on the outskirts of town / I think I'm going insane / from talking to myself / for so long." And what can a poor boy do but let it all out at the end of the week? But then he's likely to end up stuck in an even more dire, shit creek: "I gotta break out one weekend / Before I do somebody in / But every single time / I feel a little stronger / They tell me it's a crime / Well, how much longer?
There's so much more that could be said. Listening to Costello here at the minute, I'm increasingly convinced of his ability to capture and distill everyday insanity, the madness of mediocrity, the aching frustrations that galls the lives of the majonty of nine-to-five people. He also provides the kind of music that can penetrate that murk, to reach through the grey torpor that afflicts Everyman.
He makes pop music, that's right, potential singles-chart stuff, that's got the heart, rhythm 'n' soul of the best R 'n' B.
I don't want to go overboard. Elvis is back. Costello rules OK. Listen to My Aim is True.