Remember when the new wave in popular music broke out into the public eye in the late seventies? All those outrageous performers got big-time publicity in splash articles in Time and the Rolling Stone, and we heard for the first time names like Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, and the Dead Kennedys. The self-styled music prophets who had been looking around for the Next Big Thing declared that this was it, and we the public just kind of braced ourselves for the deluge.
But when we opened our eyes again, we found that nothing much had really changed. New Wave was kept alive by die-hard tragically hip types and newspaper staffs of obscure colleges with no journalism majors, but it turned out that though the shock troops of the New Wave had the audacity to turn pop music on its ear, they didn't have the balls to come up with a New Music to replace it.
But good news and a glimmer of hope have arrived this musical season in the form of the new album offerings by Elvis Costello and X. There's something different and exciting about these albums — a new level of maturity and musical craftsmanship. But more important, there is an implication on the part of the artists of a willingness to stand alone on the merits of the music, instead of deriving identity from a reactionary movement. It's an indication that New Wave is coming of age, ready at last to make real contributions to pop music.
Imperial Bedroom is being billed as Elvis Costello's masterpiece. It may or may not be, but it certainly continues the fascinating evolutionary course his music has taken through each of his seven albums. His debut album in 1977 marked him as rock's angriest man, making scathing attacks on everything from personal infidelity to political stupidity. His new album, however, demonstrates a new side of Costello. His songs are more mature, less strident, and depend on intricate and delicate musical arrangements.
There are two things one notices about this album after an initial listening,the first being the number of words. Every song is packed almost from beginning to end with lyrics. For once the mixing engineer made sure they could be understood over the instrumentation. At times, however, Elvis' verbosity gets out of hand, and he's forced to wrap his melodies around the lyrics, instead of the other way around.
The second thing that rates notice is Elvis' marvelously pliant voice. It can, at times, be evocative, cajoling, sardonic, compassionate, and bitter, and sometimes, all of these emotions at once. "Beyond Belief" and "The Long Honeymoon" are fine examples of this vocal flexibility.
Although Elvis' lyrics are as ironic and cutting as ever, he doesn't rock out once on this album. He's trying a new strategy, attempting to engage your heart and emotions in a more complete manner. He's trying to be more compassionate and caring, while remaining completely honest in his observations (listen to "Beyond Belief" and "You Little Fool").
This album can easily deceive at first. It's not perfect, and it's not a sell-out to MOR either. You have to pay attention, but that's what Elvis wants you to do in the first place.
Under the Big Black Sun by X is similar to Imperial Bedroom in that it is a new kind of music, building on the past but jetting out much further. X emerged from L.A.'s hardcore punk scene, invading the public consciousness in a big way last year. Their music was distinguished from the punk morass by reason of their intriguing and catchy sound, and an engaging and endearing ability to communicate intimate feelings. Yet, despite the fact that the critics raved Wild Gift up and down, that album was a commercial dog.
But now X is back with a new label, better publicity, and an album that's a terrific follow-up to Wild Gift. The melodies are more varied and sophisticated, and the guitar is more daring. The lyrics take even greater risks and have more depth of feeling.
The word that critics have most often used to describe X is honest. Each song seems to be a sincere effort to communicate deeply-felt and sometimes painful emotions. A good part of the first side deals with singer Exene's feelings concerning her sister Mary's death in an auto accident. "Riding with Mary" and "Come Back to Me" are haunting and extraordinarily open explorations of that theme.
Most of the album deals with feelings of sadness, grief, and dejection. Like the cover, each song is a tellingly observant but slightly unreal picture of life. The album on a whole, however, is not gloomy or depressing. It is saved by Billy Zoom's bright guitar work and the overall kinetic feel running through all the music.
Lyrics with a negative theme combined with bright, upbeat music was what my seventh grade music appreciation teacher told me was the definition of traditional American blues. The strongest feeling I get from X's new album is that I am listening to uniquely American music, a new kind of modern blues.
Neither of these two albums is necessarily a classic, or a blockbuster herald of a new age of pop music like the original New Wave was supposed to be. They are a heartening sign that the tremendous potential displayed by New Wave artists is finally finding its way into mature and relevant channels. That's just the kind of trend the pop music genre needs now.