Costello emerged as a central writer of the new wave, but his musical apprenticeship in pub-rock (Flip City) is evident on his first album, My Aim Is True.
The album bears Nick Lowe's stamp (a first-take, live sound, raunchy singalong tunes) but also contains the complexities and ironies of the late Costello.
Elvis on the cover is ironically surrounded by the motto "Elvis Is King" — a clear reference to "the other one." The persona of these songs is painfully aware of "the other guy." He is a failure in love, jilted, rejected. Conventional metaphors come vividly and violently to life — as in Costello's later work — to attack him.
"I said, 'I'm so happy, I could die.' She said 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy."
This tentative, ineffectual persona is trapped by experience, "mystified" and unable to act. Consequently, he has become an ironic, distanced, sardonic observer.
Uninvolved in experience himself, he lives life at second-hand, through the media, or by watching and listening to the activities of others. His role as observer allows him to perceive the social and emotional traps which others fall into — especially sentimentality and "romantic" submission:
"I'm not going to get too sentimental / Like those other sticky valentines."
As in the songs of Costello's punk contemporaries and Lowe's "Ugly Things," there is no sentimentality in this portrayal of "romance," only a cynical realisation of the true power-struggle which constitutes any relationship. ("Somebody has to cry," "You can't force me to use a little tenderness").
Costello's aim is true and he realises that we would rather not face the truth, ("anything but say that it's true"). But despite "Less Than Zero" and the continual references to darkness, the album is not nihilistic.
The watcher in these songs may feel disgust for the pretences of sentimentality but, as "Red Shoes" claims, it is always tinged with amusement.
Creative tension arises from the play between the ironic, amused, embittered lyrics and the catchy melodic tunes of the songs. And just as the lyricist is always aware of the other guy, so the musician is aware of other people's music.
Hence the range of the musical references, from the Presley rock 'n' roll of "Mystery Dance" through the Spector-sound of "No Dancing" to the West-coast soft-rock of "Sneaky Feelings." As Costello said on Joe Loss's This Is Your Life, again employing his voyeur metaphor, "spying on the bands of the early Sixties was where I stole most of the things I'm doing now."
"Watching The Detectives" continues this role of voyeur but the speaker has become violent ("I get so angry"). The song is charged, more indebted to punk, as are the songs on This Year's Model.
Costello's move from Stiff to Radar represents a major transition. The addition of The Attractions constitutes a great enrichment and lightening of sound. The production of This Year's Model is deeper, richer; and whereas the songs of My Aim Is True were fragmentary, This Year's Model presents a coherent picture of society.
The ironic observer and anti-sentimental commentator becomes a prophet with a dark vision. This Year's Model presents a world of "luxury" ("Living In Paradise") containing all the trappings of modern consumerism – photographs, videos, telephones.
Costello the ex-computer operator condemns this mechanised world. As in Ferry's "In Every Dreamhome A Heartache," to be surrounded by luxurious but inhuman consumerist gadgetry results in alienation between the individual and his environment, and in the de-personalisation of human relationships.
Girls have become part of this consumerist package world: mass-produced, no longer real, they have become products to be owned ("You Belong To Me"). This ambiguity is maintained in the album's title: is This Year's Model a new gadget, or a real person who will become dated, instantly disposable ("She's last year's model")?
People are turning into mechanical objects (as in "I'm Not Angry," "I've got this camera click-click-clicking in my head") and, in emotional relationships, are treated accordingly ("You want to throw me away / But I'm not broken," "I hold you like I hold that bakalite in my hands").
If "love" is not seen in terms of mechanisation, it is a terminal disease (a tumour), a fatal addiction (a narcotic). Girls are two-faced ("Little sniggers") and threatening. Metaphors and clichés become charged with violence ("Little triggers that you pull with your tongue"; compare the later "loaded imagination being fired by girls' talk").
A conventional romantic handsqueeze is liable to turn into a deathclinch ("Shake you very gently by the throat"; "Hand In Hand"). Escape from this world is offered only as a slim chance. Mechanical gadgetry cannot explain or control all the forces of the universe, as the ghostly photograph on the back cover suggests. (Hence Costello's attraction to the "unphotographable" girl of "My Funny Valentine").
One way of escaping from the mechanised world is through the feelings – the word is significant throughout This Year's Model, for emotion is of the things, as "Girls Talk" later suggests, which cannot be covered up "with lipstick and powder" – i.e. the cosmetic deceptions of materialist life.
Costello is aware, however, that simply indulging our feelings may result in explosions of violence ("Lipstick Vogue"). Feelings are only significant if they are meant (another crucial word throughout Costello's work). Usually we do not mean what we do or say – hence Costello's fascination with alibis, the stories which disguise truth.
Speaking may also provide an escape from the mechanised world. (Speech is Costello's most central concern). By breaking silence, we risk violence (the broken/spoken rhyme occurs twice on This Year's Model); but speaking out must still be undertaken, for by speaking we cease to be the mere watchers of "Watching The Detectives" and "Living In Paradise," and begin to move out into a real world of action.
And on This Year's Model Costello himself moves from his earlier stance as ironic observer, becoming more deeply implicated in social and emotional concerns.
The savage attack upon the alienating, depersonalising world of consumerist gadgetry and control by the mass media continues in "Radio, Radio." The media, Costello claims, try to de-sensitise and "anaesthetise" our ability to experience emotion and feelings.
Costello, however, as an active member of the consumer society, must stand in an ambiguous relationship to the world of products. He himself produces records — a large feature of consumerism; the mechanical recording devices he damns are also his livelihood.
Armed Forces extends Costello's social vision. The individual is a victim, under suspicion, hounded and threatened by nameless investigating hives. ("People you can check up on," "I want you checked", "She's picking out names," "You check her outline"). Musically, "Party Girl" recalls "You Never Give Me Your Money," a song which includes the word "investigations."
Many songs recall the urgent, melodramatic spy-themes of John Barry. The metaphors, drawn principally from military life (“Senior Service”, “Goon Squad”, “Oliver’s Army”) and the world of espionage, are used to explore the “emotional fascism: ‘romance’ has become a question of which individual will dominate the other:
“Two little Hitlers will fight it out until/ One little Hitler does the other one’s will.”
The inner sleeve shows a consumerist life of luxury (the swimming-pool of “In Every Dreamhome…”?): paint charts give glamorous names but all are actually the same colour: the TV announcer of “Green Shirt” can turn complex, multi-coloured issues “into black-and-white”.
This black-and-white, money-dominated world is racialist:
“Beat up strangers who talk funny/ Take their greasy foreign money”.
The picture of Britain, gone “to the dogs and down the drains”, full of “busy bodies, getting nowhere” is bleak and hopeless. Despite his reiterated belief that “It’s the words that we don’t say that scare me so”, Costello no longer holds out the hope that speaking may solve social and individual problems.
This is a world where people would rather not talk or listen; “I don’t want to hear it”; “You don’t want to hear about that”; “talk ‘till your face is blue”; so long as we don’t have to talk at all”.
If there is talking or listening it has sinister, politically voyeuristic connotation – “listening in the Venus-line”, “just a word in Mr. Churchill’s ear”. Individuals have become “automatic”; the world of cosmetic consumerism has paralysed the ability to make real mental and moral decisions (“Your mouth is made up/ But your mind is undone”). Our obsession with appearance and with material objects prevents any real human contact:
“You want to kiss her/ But she’s busy with her make-up.”
Despite its commercial success, “Armed Forces” remains unsatisfactory. The complex, subtle verbal ironies of earlier albums have become heavy-handed, glib and simplistic (“Blame it all upon the darkies”). The amused disgust of “Red Shoes” becomes simply disgust (“you do the dirty business”, “Dirty words with dirty minds”).
Costello’s great skill with puns and metaphors weakens (except on “Chemistry Class” and “Green Shirt”) and on this album deteriorates into simple tinkering with clichés which is at best “clever”, like 10CC, and at worst trite:
“It’s a death that’s worse than fate”, “It’s all so calculated, She’s got a calculator”, “You’ll never be the guilty party girl”.
The light, tongue-in-cheek, Sixties-ish sound of earlier albums is replaced by a plush, thick production which does not underscore the songs’ ironies, but seems designed to gloss over their basic weakness. Many of the songs are “calculated”; by Costello’s standards, “second-rate”.
In Autumn 1979 Costello began his involvement with The Specials, producing their first LP. Their first single, “Gangsters”, presents Costello’s world, where the individual is threatened by nameless forces, by mechanical gadgetry, by recording devices; and where he is threatened by the possibility of himself becoming a consumerist product, a bootleg LP – perhaps Costello’s greatest fear. The deep involvement with The Specials and the 2-Tone sound is obvious on “Get Happy!!” (especially “Opportunity”).
Once again, Costello changes label to change musical style. In terms of lyrics, music, production and packaging the album represents a dramatic lowering of sights from the plushness of “Armed Forces”. (The cassette cover shows a low-brow eye-pencil).
The sound is nostalgic (“There’ll never be days like that again”), often recalling the warm organ-based sounds of Booker T and Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” or Motown’s driving vocals. The tone of Costello’s recent work is elegiac, full of a sense of loss.
The violence of “Pump It Up” and “Lipstick Vogue” has mellowed. Though his social concern is still great – at its most powerful for those “Living a life that is almost like suicide” on “New Amsterdam” – “Get Happy!!” is not as dark in its vision as the two previous albums, for Costello rejects the role of doom-prophet he formerly assumed.
His re-established position as unassuming social commentator recalls the stances of The Specials and of songwriters of the Sixties. Costello re-explores, in the style and format of the Sixties, the relationship between love and money which has led to the emotional bankruptcy of our society (especially recalling Beatles’ songs which investigate this relationship; “Possession” opens with the opening line of “From Me To You”).
Love and money are inextricably interwoven (“Is it pleasure or business?”). This relationship is expressed through some classic Costello revitalisations of metaphor: “he’d never seen love so dear”, “I’ll pay you a compliment”.
Economic possession means emotional possession. Children are born as a result of financial inducement (“Big money for families having more than one”). Costello’s ability to rework metaphors and puns to express human relationships and to use a phrase with multiple meanings (“Love For Tender”) is still evident.
The disgust of “Armed Forces” disappears, and the amusement of “Red Shoes” returns. “King Horse” reminds us what a wry, sardonic humorist – like Ray Davies – Costello can be. However, it seems part of Costello’s recent strategy that words should become less important (as on “Moods For Moderns”).
His suspicion of words increases: “Everything you say now sounds like it was ghost-written”. In a world where “Money talks, and it’s persuasive”, it is perhaps better to remain silent. Speaking seems only imply commercial values – “You can put your money where your mouth it”. Silence presents sinister threats (“the violence/or the tears or the silence”) but the alternative may be to “just talk and talk” “stupid nonsense”.
A girl in “I’m Not Angry” was “talking with her hands … smiling with her legs”. Costello now seems to believe that expressions on faces (“it’s newsprint all over your face”, “Clack of the faces”) and actions of the body, may speak louder than words:
“Your body speaks so much louder than your voice/ You let it do the talking.”
Compare “Ghost Train”;: “Look at the graceful way she dances/ One foot speaks, the other answers.”
Through dancing, our bodies speak most eloquently. In keeping with this “Get Happy!!” – with its debts to ska, bluebeat, R ‘&’ B – works not only on the level of listenable lyrics but also on the level of danceable music; not simply a consumerist product, but performing a social function.
Costello has returned to a rougher rawer production and mix (the “live” sound of The Specials’ LP), in an effort to escape from himself becoming a consumer product – a situation strongly threatened by “Armed Forces”.
Costello has acknowledged that he is part of the consumer society, making commercial products. He has options: to settle happily into that society; or increasingly to opt out of the fate of himself becoming a product; to become a producer of other people’s work.
Costello has been influential in re-establishing many of the features of Sixties pop music: the short, energetic two-minute single; the album of 12 (or 20!) songs; the sounds of a Sixties dance band. His great contributions have been his cynical, sceptical but seriously truthful picture of “romance” – the harsh reality of what it means to be “in love”; and his presentation of the emotional failure, the jilted, ironic observer as hero (an obvious influence on Joe Jackson).
However, Costello has found that it is increasingly difficult to maintain convincingly the role of failure when you are a rock superstar. His debts to punk music have been great but, unlike many punk writers, he has always played off his ironic sardonic lyrics against strong melody lines, rarely compromising the validity of the lyrics by this contrast, (Blondie take note).
He has helped to establish 2-Tone, one of the most successful and innovative labels of recent times. His songs are serious but not grave; his view of our society is essentially moralistic but, except for the aberrations of “Armed Forces”, he does not seek to preach, only to comment. His work and influence have been of lasting importance.