When Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True appeared in 1977, its cover starring Costello as a splay-legged, murderous nerd with no interest in taking prisoners or suffering fools, pop music was changed and challenged.
Who was this gawky, uncomfortable creature crashing the punk-rock party? Punk was in full bloom, the Ramones and Sex Pistols leading the brawl, and while Costello looked as if he might have a nice collection of pocket protectors at home and there was no missing that incongruous wedding ring you also got the distinct impression that he had a few bodies in the backyard.
But while Johnny Rotten made it clear that it was us — and not them, of course — that he hated so completely, Costello was far more complicated. He was clearly angry with a lot of people but more interesting was the anger and frustration directed at himself. Frustration, in fact, powers the entire record, from the feelings of inadequacy behind "Welcome to the Working Week" to the sexualhomicidal tension that makes "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" so delicious.
Debut albums, in other words, don't get much better, which is why My Aim Is True is getting its fourth reissue surely some kind of record. This one justifies itself with two hours of bonus material, most of it previously unreleased. There's a complete club show from 1977, including sound check, and four out-takes from the album sessions. More revealing are the Pathway Studio demos, featuring only Costello and his guitar, recorded shortly before the album sessions began.
The live disc, unfortunately, doesn't live up to expectations. While it features the then newly formed Attractions, Costello's finest band, they sound hesitant and uncertain (especially keyboardist Steve Nieve, who can't seem to figure out what he's supposed to be doing). Nearly everything is half a beat off and short on the ferocity that would make Costello's second album, This Year's Model, essential listening.
A similar lack of ferocity is what keeps My Aim Is True from perfection despite its many and venomous charms. The ad-hoc band, featuring several future members of Huey Lewis & the News, is more than adequate but not nearly as inspired as Costello or the songs. Within a year, however, Costello and the Attractions would find that ideal blend of pop smarts, musical aggression and intellectual menace that set standards most bands are still striving to match.
But here's the problem: at $30 this is wildly overpriced, especially given the lack of liner notes and the availability of the cheaper 2001 Rhino reissue, also a two-disc set. If the live set were a better performance, sure. Wait for a sale and grab it. But unless you're a completist, this is clearly a case of essential music carelessly packaged for a quick profit.