Something is happening here and I don't know what it is. In this second album, Elvis Costello makes bizarre demands on his audience — one that seems to be evenly composed of curiosity seekers and hard-core fanatics.
What is demanding is that his ideas and images are so scattered that the listener beats his/her brains out to figure out what's going on, only to wonder if This Year's Model (Columbia) has any theme at all.
The songs themselves suggest what the Sex Pistols did in "Pretty Vacant": that we live in a mechanical, apathetic world. But the irony is that this LP is so full of life and instrumentally so much more musical. If the lyrics are schizoid phrases, they are alluring and not monotonous, as punk rock often is.
This Year's Model is very literate, urgent expression on par with last year's My Aim Is True. There is a heavy emphasis on the mid-sixties — no Presley-styled tracks like 1977's "Mystery Dance." Costello's sardonic wit is in full-bloom, much like his suicide tale, "Watching the Detectives" from the debut record. That song showed how masterfully he could combine humor with the sinister: "I don't know how much of this I can take / she's filing her nails / while they're dragging the lake."
This Year's Model is a '60's amalgam, with gloriously puzzling influences: Bob Dylan, the Move, the Who, the Pretty Things, Marvin Gaye, The Stones, Bo Diddley and ? and the Mysterians.
"Lip Service," the most memorable track, notes that "everybody is going through the motions," while rocking furiously. And "You Belong To Me" boasts power at the expense of the meek: "you're easily led / but you're much too scared to follow."
The new album's title probably comments on music as a business, taking slashes at groups who grind out formulated, stale hit songs. "No Action" tells of a lot of motion with no end result, and the warm, Who-like harmonies are the exact opposite of the emptiness in the words: "I don't want to kiss you / I don't want to touch / I don't want to see you / 'cause I don't miss you that much."
KLBJ-FM's Bobby Lincoln must consider "No Action" a classic; in a recent set, he surrounded it with the Who's "My Generation" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." "The best rock 'n' roll," he told his audience, "is adolescent frustration."
Frustration is driving spirit — that's what This Year's Model must be about. Costello condemns American misconceptions that "bigger is better" in "Pump it Up," a real stomper: "Pump it up!/ when you don't really mean it / Pump it up! / until you can feel it." The anger is gloriously incitive, bouncing off the rhythms and brittle guitar — this has nothing to do with "moosh."
Elvis Costello has brought immediacy to rock by pushing it back a decade. What he may be saying is that beat and feeling are the most important attributes of this youthful rebellion, and have been forgotten by most artists.
With Costello and Warren Zevon putting it all together in 1978's first three months and some important releases by others to follow, rock music could be in for a mighty year. This Year's Model deserves your attention — while confusing, it will move you.