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