Elvis Costello?... What songs does he do?... Oh... Wait. Whadja say his name was again?
Elvis Costello is the King of New Wave, that marvelous sound comprised of at least three definite categories: nonclassifiable entities such as Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine; power pop; and the infamous punk rock. This compendium draws from mid-60's groups and hits such as the Rolling Stones and "Gloria," which, in turn, had their roots in 50s rock, (As someone reasoned, "They can't call it 'old old wave' because nobody would buy the stuff, so they call it 'new wave' instead.")
It is nearly impossible to lump Costello in any of the aforementioned groups, although he probably resembles Smith and Verlaine more than any others. His music is definitely not simple-minded, three-chord punk, nor does it sound like rehashed Raspberries, yet it is still distinctly different in most ways from other Wave soloists! Elvis stands alone with his slashing cynicism and his acrid anger, under which lies a soul flagellated by rejection. He sometimes scorns what he loves most, but, again, spares no mercy for the unjust.
What happened to him that gave him such a hostile outlook towards everything? Costello won't say anything about when he was known in a working-class London neighborhood as Declan McManus. He recently told a reporter from Gig magazine that if his background didn't mean anything to people then, he doesn't see any reason why it should now. About all the public knows about him is that while he was operating a computer at the Elizabeth Arden cosmetic factory, he was also hounding various English recording companies. Finally, in what seemed almost a fruitless attempt, Costello persuaded Radar Records to sign him on in 1977. Since then, his first LP, My Aim is True, proved to be a New Wave chartbuster, something rather unusual for the regular pop ratings. This Year's Model, his second LP in less than a year, is following the same trend, and "I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" soared in sales last spring in Great Britain. (Unfortunately, "Chelsea" and "Night Rally," two of the best songs on the disk, are included only on British pressings.)
Thematically, one of Costello's targets is society's sheeplike tendency to follow the leader, whoever that may be. In the case of "Night Rally," it is the National front, a vehement and destructive group of British racists. Here, the mood is like that of an airless, emotion-void city waiting for the arrival of Nazis. The troops are ready to mobilize, and Costello warns the potential victims: "They're puttin' all your names / In the forbidden book / I know what they're doing / But I don't want to look." After establishing such an ominous tone, he admonishes the soon-to-be Front followers: "You think they're so dumb / You think they're so funny / 'Till they got you runnin' to their Night Rally." He tosses in a glimpse of what's in store: "Everyone is all fancy / Treated glasses / Some are in the back room / And they're taking those night classes." "Rally's" threatening, march-like quality helps the listener conjure up an image of the ranks forming at the far end of the boulevard. The whole idea may be exaggerated, considering that the National Front is such a miniscule outfit. However, the point definitely comes across. It makes you think. It disgusts. To a certain extent, it even frightens.
In another critical vein, "This Year's Girl" explores the annual rise and fall of starlets such as Farrah F. Costello notes that excess publicity and constant exposure bring the public into too great a familiarity with the women. As he puts it: "See her picture in a thousand places / 'Cause she's This Year's Girl." From here on, though, the lyrics become more personalized as he conveys his thoughts about meeting her to other male listeners. He sings: "Forget your fancy manners / Forget your English grammar / 'Cause you don't really give a damn...." But, he further develops the fantasy, expecting that "she is well-spoken / 'Cause she's This Year's Girl." Costello's slamming guitar and throbbing drums intensify his frustrations as he follows up with a brutally sadistic scene in which he envisions himself "rollin on the carpet with This Year's Girl / You see her broken with her mouth wide open / 'Cause she's This Year's Glrl." And, when someone new finally comes along to replace her, Costello simply reasons: "She's forgotten, much more than she's lost."
This leads in to the most prominent theme in Elvis' music: resentment towards women. If reading some of the above lyrics arched your eyebrows, read on. From the start, Elvis initiates the listener. In "No Action," he complains that his girl won't do anything besides talk to him on the phone. Their relationship has dissolved, and, boy, do you know it: "The things in my head / Start hurtin' my mind, girl / Think about the way / Things used to be / ... Sometimes I call you / When I know you're not there / But I was disconnected in time / There's No Action." Even though Costello spews out venom, the lyrics betray him. He's angry; yet he's begging for another try. Nobody wants to be rejected.
"Lip Service" parallels these sentiments. He pretends to be self-sufficient, but he can't make it without the girl. "Lip Service is all you'll ever get from me," he snarls, but calms down quickly in the next line: "But if you change your mind / You can still get a letter to me." It is this type of pleading that makes Costello all the more pathetic. His paranoia leads him to make various generalizations about women, also.
In "Lipstick Vogue," he paints them as pretentious egomaniacs, except for the one who's the subject of the song: "It's you, it's you / Not just another mouth in the Lipstick Vogue."
At other times, such as in "Pump it Up," he can entice with his no-holds-barred brand of sexuality. The steadily punching bass and drums coupled with the low-key drone of the organ in the background enhance the rather explicit lyrics: "Pump it up when you don't really need it / Pump it up / When you do you can feel it." He also forms one of the more unusual rock 'n' roll portraits of a woman in the next verse: "She is like a narcotic / You want to torture her / You want to talk to her."
The most sensuous song on the whole album is, without a doubt, "Little Triggers." The rolling piano and the deliberate, dusky melody tantalize and arouse. This time, Costello is about to enter into a relationship, but with the tune taking precedence here, the listener forgets the lyrics momentarily. Elvis forewarns the girl of what he doesn't want: "I don't want to be hung up, strung up / When you don't call up." What is more, instead of growling or spitting his way through, he half-whispers the lyrics in a smooth, seductive style, telling her to get her act together: "Thinking all about the false sense of sequences / Worryin' about the consequences / Waiting until I come to my senses / Better put it all in present tenses."
The greatest thing about Costello is that he can transgress moods without mellowing out his choice of instruments. He always uses the same three or four in every song: guitar, bass, and organ or piano. No fuzzy synthesizers or fancy overdubs for him. Elvis once said in an interview that his music is for the common man. Therefore, if you have an elaborate stereo system, you may at first be surprised by the apparent simplicity of his arrangements. However, if you stop and examine them closely, the instruments punctuate the lyrics, especially those lightly bursting drum beats. The most original feature of his music,though, is the organ, the delicate classical riffs of which underscore a sadistic sexuality or seething mockery.
Whichever way one views him, the man elicits response. You either like him or you don't; but in this world of Aerosmiths and Bonnie Tylers, Elvis Costello is one hell of a genius.