Nobody normally releases records at this time of the year. Consuming passion is spent, January sales are small, and by the time the next record rush comes the new year's revolutions will be long forgotten. January is a disgruntled month, a good setting for an Elvis Costello song. Strange to say, his new LP is wonderful.
My Aim Is True was a songwriter's demo tape. All Costello's best numbers, reeled off with arrogant assurance, but poorly produced, the sound of session musicians' pub past. The album was Costello's portfolio for admission into the rock academy.
This Year's Model had a band and a punch. Costello clenched his nerves and spouted. The record was unrelentingly effective, and its effect on me was tedium. Costello seemed to have devoted all his skills to a single mood: rock 'n' roll spite.
His little triggers duly hit the critical jackpot. He was investigating his nervous urges, we were told. Nonsense. His blocked-up passion lacked the necessary irony. He was celebrating contempt.
Costello's live shows were equally contemptuous, and I spent most of last year like Mr Jones; something was happening here and I surely didn't know what it was. As far as I was concerned Costello was one of those short people Randy Newman warned us about. "Peep, peep, peep," he went and I had to keep jumping to avoid him underfoot.
A new year, a new ear. Costello's was, I had to admit, the best number on the New Year Whistle Test and Granada put on an illuminating hour of Randy Newman. I suddenly heard Newman as Costello's biggest influence. They take songwriting equally seriously. They find the world equally rum. Neither of them is stupid. Both of them are baffled by their own obstinate optimism. While I watched Newman I wondered why Elvis wasn't so nice a chap. While I listened to Costello I wondered why Randy was so weary.
Newman is an ironist. His songs work because we don't hear him in them. And he is essentially charming. We have to like the singer to take the songs. "Lonely At The Top," for example, has a triple echo. Level one: the superstar cliche, the someone-with-everything moan. Newman wrote the song for Frank Sinatra who recorded "My Way" instead. Level two: the Randy Newman cliche, the crumpled, seedy intellectual singing his show-biz success. The crumpled audience laughed appreciatively. Level three: the no-sitars-in-rock cliche, the Hollywood idler selling himself as one of us. Randy smiled appreciatively to himself. He spent the interview implying that he was kind of ..... lonely?
Elvis Costello ties up image, self and writer differently. He is a double act. Elvis lives in the house that Jake built. Elvis reaches us via more production companies than the average American film (though it's all the some old Warner Communication in the end). Elvis commissions pompous sleeves and wants to be alone. Elvis swats cameramen and draws the press as moths to a lamp. Elvis doesn't think his audiences appreciate him and I think Elvis is a creep.
Costello is someone else. He is the craftsman, the fan, the worshipper of words. If This Year's Model was Elvis's punk LP, searing energy, Armed Forces is mellow Costello, a measured pop production. It's Costello's Abba LP (listen to "Oliver's Army"). "I just don't know where to begin," Costello begins and it's his Mickie Most mentality. The record is off to a ringing start and it's Nick Lowe's homage to Chinn and Chapman. The only problem now is what to do with Costello's voice. It is rhythmically sharp but melodically flat and Lowe only flattens it further. Does George Jones give voice coaching?
As a songwriter Costello needs lessons from nobody. Specially not from rock critics who want to know what his songs are "about." Costello writes pop songs; his only concern is the power of speech. His wordplay isn't only a party trick. His punning, when it works, sets up resonances, ripples of verbal possibility. "Your mind is made-up," he sings, "But your mouth is undone."
Costello uses running analogies like a soul singer: "Accidents Will Happen," love as hit-and-run; "Chemistry Class," mix two lives together and what is the final solution? His best songs pull the comfort out of cliches. "Every day's just like the rest, but Sunday's best," he sings and flips through the News of the World: sexual disasters, brutality, prurience, lazy Sunday afternoons.
Armed Forces is a poor title — no nudge — and Emotional Fascism doesn't mean much to me either. The album should have been called "Home Front" or "Behind The Washing Lines." Costello wants to find out what happens when you use war words for domestic strife. Sometimes not much ("Senior Service"), sometimes something scarey ("Green Shirt"), sometimes something oddly touching: "And two little Hitlers will fight it out until / one little Hitler does the other one's will."
Costello writes songs round phrases that probably don't mean much when he starts. His verbal facility is like John Cooper Clarke's (a friend). But Costello is more exercised by musical discipline — sound as well as vision, tight structures that don't always work. "I will return," he announces on "Little Hitlers", a suitably resonant threat. "I will not burn." And this is slack, a rhyme without a reason.
My Aim Is True was a record in the language of pop romance. Costello believed in the words, they failed him, and he blamed the world for the vacuity of his concepts. This Year's Model was his revenge. He used the words to pin down his enemies and rode high on the exhilaration of his own dexterity. On Armed Forces the words rhyme with more compassion. Costello's become an ironist too: "I will be your stranger," he sings on "Moods For Moderns." It's his normal slick joke, but it suddenly sounds more affectionate, less a veiled threat than "I will be your friend."
Elvis Costello: The People's Stranger.