This Year's Model — and it's difficult to believe from the maturity of the writing and the performance that it's only The Man's second album! — is an achievement so comprehensive, so inspired, that it exhausts superlatives. It promotes its author to the foremost ranks of contemporary rock writers. Clear out of sight of most of his rivals and comparisons (so long, Bruce baby), Elvis Costello's prodigious talent, we can see in retrospect, was only superficially exposed on his first album.
While it is true that Aim's specific themes of revenge, jealousy, infidelity, deceit and betrayal are central to this album's most powerful songs — "Lip Service," "Lipstick Vogue" and "Living In Paradise" — these obsessions are forced even more ruthlessly into the spotlight. And, running parallel to these preoccupations, is the vague paranoia and unease of "The Beat" and "Night Rally" which hardens to vicious attack on "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," a virulent indictment of the superficialities of style and fashion: "Everybody has new orders / Be a good girl, kiss the warders."
Nick Lowe's production is easily his finest hour, a firm but sympathetic treatment of the songs, and embellishments that are carefully considered. It brings Elvis' sneering vocal into dramatic close-up — his voice throughout has tremendous presence — as the Attractions, with characteristic razorblade cool, slice across the mix. The themes of infidelity and humiliation are pursued with relentless vigour and imagination. "Hand In Hand" — which has a backward tape fade-in redolent of 10CC and a gorgeously rich and infectious melody — seems to propose love as a criminal conspiracy: ("Don't ask me to apologise. I won't ask you to forgive me / If I'm gonna go down, you're gonna come with me").
The extraordinary "Living In Paradise" is set against a neurotic calypso backdrop, with Elvis phrasing his lyrics with a flippant, disquieting glee. The song unfolds as an epic of suspicion, jealousy and revenge, replete with the kind of dangerous images that elevated "I'm Not Angry" to such chilling peaks: "Later in the evening when the arrangements are made. I'll be at the keyhole outside your bedroom door." sings Elvis, voice twitching and kicking over the jerking rhythm. "You think that I don't know the boy that you're touching / but I'll be at the video and I will be watching."
Sex is again the theme of "This Year's Girl," a brilliant exposition of the hypocrisy that can be provoked by the exploitation of unattainable objects. Elvis flicks off taut guitar sequences over Steve Naive's swirling keyboard shrouds and a central percussion motif that exaggerates the mounting tension.
A similar abrasiveness characterises the paranoid rush of the epic "The Beat," which follows. The fierce tango arrangement has been retained from the live prototype that Elvis has been performing since he formed the Attractions, but the fury has been tempered in favour of a more insidious pulse. Steve Naive's icy keyboard interpolations (imagine a crazed hybrid of Garth Hudson and Can's Irmin Schmidt, if you can) shiver nervously behind Elvis's alarm-central lyrics.
The standard of the writing, where the penetration of the language matches the vaulting hysteria of the performance, is relaxed only twice — midway through side one — with "Pump It Up" and "Little Triggers." The former is a routine rocker (I'm sure Nick Lowe told me that this is one of the tracks on which the Clash's Mick Jones played — "to Keef it up" — but he's not much in evidence), while "Triggers" employs an overly familiar ballad scheme with a predictable melody, a fault that is not overcome by the rather intriguing lyrics. Still, things are quickly whacked back into shape with "You Belong To Me," which brings the side to a roaring conclusion, and by the complete magnificence of side two which includes "Hand In Hand," "Chelsea" — dealt with already — as well as "Lip Service," "Lipstick Vogue" and the masterful "Night Rally."
"Lip Service" features an especially deft Lowe production job, with acoustic guitars skating beneath Elvis' lead vocal and handclaps punctuating the chorus. "Lipstick Vogue" is altogether more violent, with Pete Thomas' drums careening from speaker to speaker (here recalling the intro to the live version of "Mystery Dance"), and Elvis' scatter-chord guitar knocking the song along at a slashing pace. The arrangement is unusually powerful and imaginative. The instruments, having hit one furious-peak, fall away behind Elvis, then rise again to a final crescendo so deranged that this listener is left quite breathless. Elvis and Basher, however, have left until last the album's most lethal broadside.
"Night Rally" is a disturbing comment upon the popularity and potential menace of the National Front that achieves its resonance not from any sensational sloganeering but from the genuine apprehension conveyed by Lowe's discreet atmosphere of impending disaster and Elvis's desolate lyric: "They're putting all your names in the forbidden book / I know what they're doing but I don't want to look / You think they're so dumb, think they're so funny / But wait until they get you running to their Night Rally / Night Rally." It is fitting that such an important song concludes such an impressive album.
This Year's Model. This Year's Masterpiece. The best thing I've heard since the last best thing I heard. Etc. Etc. Etc.