To paraphrase Pauline Kael, the popular song took a giant, evolutionary leap when Elvis Costello belted out "Pay It Back" on his stunning debut album My Aim Is True. The wirey "punk" followed the line "I love you more than everything in the world," with the less than promising "I don't expect that will last."
With one strum from his guitar and a few notes from his raspy but expressive vocal cords, the "new" Elvis Costello that is, brought a thousand year tradition of Anglo-Saxon love lyrics tumbling
Until there was Elvis Costello, love songs from the isle of Britain have been singled-minded in their faith in the truth, beauty and immortality of sexual love. Whether it was Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Byron, Yeats or the Beatles, the sentiment was always the same. Whether returned or not, the love felt by the poet would last forever and ever, or at least until another object of desire came along.
Establishing a brand new stream of love songs is not the only claim to fame of this frontrunner of the new wave.
Elvis has given a sophisticated voice to the inarticulate self-pitying, cynicism of those angry young men in England who, in spite of themselves, have made a major impact on Rock 'n' Roll. No one would have guessed that groups like the Sex Pistols who appeared to be cartoons of rock groups would institute a style of music that many feel is the only contemporary music true to the roots of Rock 'n' Roll.
By hearing Elvis' three albums as they were released, we get an insider's look at a Punk's progression. In My Aim is True, he claimed "I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused." That developed into "Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being," the refrain from "Lipstick Vogue" on the second lp, This Year's Model.
Elvis Costello is still moving upward and onward. In his latest album Armed Forces, he stated unabashedly "I am starting to function in the usual way." The songs on the album exhibit the same playful paranoia of the first two but Elvis sounds like he's learning to live with it.
The subject matter (goon squads, mercenary soldiers frenzied sex) is as bizarre as ever, yet the melodies are bouncier and more melodic than before. This juxtaposition of the bright with the surreal adds a new dimension to the already complex force surrounding Elvis Costello.
The most demonically fascinating song on the album, "Oliver's Army" is a sort of "Whistle While You Work" for professional soldiers. In it Elvis says that it you have nothing better to do, why not become a hired killer. The pay is not very good but what the hell, it's a job.
Elvis makes a wry comment on the nihilism so fashionable today in the face of all the trouble in the world with some of the most powerful lines in Rock history:
There was a checkpoint Charlie
He didn't crack a smile
But it's no laughing party
When you've been on the murder mile
Only takes one itchy trigger
One more widow, one less white nigger
In "Busy Bodies," Elvis takes his field glasses into the boudoir and gives a blow by blow description of a typical seduction. By the end of the song, ringing in your ears is the phrase "Busy bodies, very busy, getting nowhere."
The album ends with raw, forceful rendition of Nick Lowe's "What's so Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding." Somehow Elvis achieves the impossible He makes you believe, even after the songs like "Oliver's Army" and "Goon Squad" that he really means it.
After all that's what Rock has been saying for all these years. Whether it was "Blowin' in the Wind," "All You Need is Love" or "Sounds of Silence" the underlying mes sage has always been "what is so funny about peace, love and understanding?"
Maybe that's why Elvis makes such a powerful impact on many. He seems to carry the entire history of Rock in his voice, his guitar and his spastic dancing.
Fear not, lovers of Rock 'n Roll, Elvis Costello will take rock safely and soundly into the 80's.