There are still things coming out of G.B. that offer some respite to the Sex Pistols. Elvis Costello, with his appearance on NBC's Saturday Night Live and countless articles, is beginning to ride the crest of good press. And deservedly so. He is one of the most refreshing performers on the scene since Andy Fairweather Low.
His new (relatively new anyway) release My Aim Is True is one of the best albums of 1977. With his cuffed jeans, Clark Kent glasses, and Fender Jazzmaster he seems closer to a cross between Buddy Holly and punk, but mannerisms aside, his basic grasp of both the British and American rock mainstream is almost masterful. True there we setbacks — his stage performance might turn off some — but his voice, a mixture of Springsteen and Robbie Robertson, is endearing.
Simon Frith's article on Costello in the Village Voice (December 25), one of the best that I've seem so far, goes into his lyrics more than I care to and to a greater depth than I would do for anyone outside of the Kinks. But Frith made one (actually more) pungent observation. Costello is oppressive to listen to at first. But it is only a momentary stumbling block. His music is a refreshing change from the mediocrity of the endless Best Of... albums that permeated the market in the last two months. (After all, The Best of the Carpenters is not my idea of a stocking stuffer.) If Costello is oppressive at first it is because we are being inundated with so much bad that good is suspicious. When David Sargent, writing in Vogue (Jan. $1.50), gives the Sex Pistols a lukewarm but relatively positive review and says that they might be the direction that music will take in the next few years you better worry. I, on the other hand, look to Elvis Costello to provide some direction.
Without getting into too much depth, My Aim Is True does offer sane outstanding numbers. "Watching the Detectives," one of the numbers performed on Saturday Night, is an excellent almost evil song with reggae overtones. But the music is secondary. His vocals on this and other cuts are above the norm. On "Watching the Detectives," "Less than Zero," and even his "romantic ballad" "Allison" you find that his anger is the instrument. Whether directed at the system, others or at anger itself, it becomes a vital part of the music. Whereas anger to the Sex Pistols is to be displayed, anger to Elvis Costello is kept within musical bounds (what?). His command of musical styles extends to politics. While the Who in "My Generation" threaten to tear down the system, a forerunner of what's going on today, Costello sublimates his anger. And the music benefits from it. Unlike Bowie's new album, Heroes.
When it canes to the point where I buy a Bowie album to hear a collaborator rather than Mr. Dave you know something is wrong. But I've felt that way since Aladdin Sane. Heroes is only mediocre trash. Even Eno's presence on the album doesn't save it, in fact, it might hinder it. There isn't anything to compare with Ziggy Stardust or Another Green World on the album. "Beauty and the Beast" is an empty song with a beat. "Joe the Lion" comes close to being a meaningful song if wasn't for all the banalities. Bowie seems hung up on e.e. cummings. His lyrics are less meaningful and more amateurish. Where he used to spout some semblance of story in his music, only "Heroes" comes close to the Bowie of a few years back. Fripp's guitar work is excellent on this track as in Eno's synthesizers. But even so his music is only acceptable when compare to what other music is appearing. Next to Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True it pales. Next to the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever it can hold its head up. But when you can appreciate an album only in this context, especially Bowie's forget it. Buy 801, Eno's live album with Phil Manzanera instead if you can find it.