Declan Patrick MacManus was born in London in 1954. His father was a bandleader and musician who often worked under the name Day Costello. Declan began singing doing backing vocals on a commercial that his father recorded. By the mid-70s he had worked in a folk duo called Rusty and a pub rock band called Flip City using the name D.P. Costello — his initials plus an homage to his father. He worked a number of odd jobs while trying to land a recording contract. He eventually landed at Stiff records, changed his name to Elvis, and hooked up with producer Nick Lowe. They worked with an American band called Clover — soon to become the News with the addition of Huey Lewis — and recorded My Aim Is True.
The result is one of the most impressive debut albums of all time, a clear indicator of the musical diversity one might expect from Elvis Costello, and a punk but not punk album that presaged a dozen musical trends. The songs tend to be short and to the point, a trend that would last Costello through his association with Lowe.
Elvis literally welcomes us to his world with "Welcome to the Working Week," a sharp jab at working class conditions and menial labor. The bite continues with the wry observations of "Miracle Man," with the singer acknowledging his shortcomings while still claiming his rightful place. "No Dancing" feels almost rockabilly but carries more of the master's frustrations. The opening spate of tongue in cheek observations and dark humor wraps up with "Blame It On Cain," a perfect not-my-world-not-my-fault burst of energy.
The tone shifts significantly with "Alison," a bittersweet ballad that shows hints of Costello's depth and breadth. Any song that works flawlessly as an Elvis Costello or Linda Ronstadt track is pretty amazing. The key line in the chorus serves as the album's title, a remarkable statement of positive intent in the midst of sarcasm and strife.
We ease back into that world with the lithe "Sneaky Feelings," a lovely warning about commitment. It's followed by "Watching the Detectives," a noir ballad that would do Richard Thompson or Warren Zevon proud, its lyrics would be creepy no matter how they were delivered. The minor key, reggae influenced tune serves to amp up the chill, creating one of Costello's early masterpieces.
Things continue in a strong vein with my personal favorite, "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." It opens with a line that is classic Costello and in many ways serves as the manifesto of his early career: "I used to be disgusted but now I try to stay amused." Clocking in at only 2:46, the song is also a perfect example of leaving the audience wanting more.
"Less Than Zero" gave its name to a mediocre book and awful movie about 80s teen angst but deserved so much better. Costello's first single, it was the world's introduction to his spiky worldview as he dissects America's obsession with the past, dysfunctional family dynamics, and modern malaise in three minutes of snark with a smile. "Mystery Dance" is another pseudo-retro track, with Costello channeling the vocal energy of Buddy Holly, whose image he mimics on the album's cover. A delightful bit on adolescent lust and fumbling, it's a brilliant snapshot with perfect musical backing.
The ending trio starts off with "Pay It Back" neatly balancing between promise and threat and moves into the brilliantly ironic "I'm Not Angry." Costello wraps things up with a literal ending, "Waiting For the End of the World." In many ways, it's a short wait, as his distinctive brand of punk slammed into singer-songwriter tunes helped usher in a whole new era of music. Slamming out a little better than an album a year through 1983, he showed off the range of his talent and challenged others to do the same.