The insult that made a man out of Mac(manus). As runs the hype: get sand kicked in your face (or whatever), keep on punching your computer, nighttime write songs pouring it all out, fix up some Hank B. Marvin hornrims, in a greater display of perverse bravado than he ever managed, call yourself Elvis (and get away with it), recreate yourself, via mystique a-go-go, become: "star"...
Hypes usually leave out the essential thing in the effort to make the subject at once "next door" and "unreachable" — the talent. Costello has it. And now he's successful, the anger also, and the drive to maintain momentum, to ram that sand right down the guy's throat. No standing still, no resting on past laurels; this album is the quantum leap that you would hope for over My Aim Is True (but that usually you'd fail to get) in most every respect bar the material, which is merely consistent.
Costello and The Attractions are probably, along with the American variant Blondie, the best Sixties synthesists going: Sixties traces/riffs, like the "Watcha Gonna Do 'Bout It" / "The Last Time" match of "You Belong To Me," blatant or otherwise, like the "Summer Holiday" steal on "The Beat," fill the album.
What matters here (and elsewhere) is the overall impression of ease in which the sources are assimilated, and remoulded into a powerful, attractive, and contemporary whole.
Take "The Beat" already mentioned. OK: starting with the "Summer Holiday" lyrical and musical cop, the Attractions and Elvis mix that in with a reggae backbeat, the pun of the title — "Beat" as in police walking around looking for you as well as what you twitch to — and lyrics like: "See your friends - the state they're in / See your friends - getting taken in," or "I don't wanna be your lover / I just wanna be your victim." This is a fair example of the technique at work throughout the album — except for the slower and, in comparison, less inventive "Little Triggers" a generousness of lyrical and musical ideas that provides the necessary foil for the bitterness and frequent meanness of the lyrical content...
Staples of the sound at once are the ready Question Mark & the Mysterians organ and angular chiming guitar bursts. Throughout The Attractions are spare yet full — no excess flash, no redundant padding — and impressively tight. And, bearing in mind the simple limitations of numbers, varied. Fave instrumental moments are the massive bass in "Lip Service," the Al Kooper organ in "This Year's Girl," the slapped disco drum of "Pump It Up," the instrumental break in "Lipstick Vogue" where the verse suddenly switches to a gradual climax of massed guitar, switching again flash fast to pounding drums... The more you listen, the more there is.
"Sometimes I think love is just a tumour / You got to cut it out": Costello's lyrics abound in puns, throwaway images — sometimes Dylan through Springsteen in their intensity, bitterness and crammed delivery. The lyrics of "Lipstick Vogue" from which the above, spill over, burst out of the verses, driven on by drums. "Living In Paradise" has Elvis getting right down to serious peeping in the middle of economic "plenty"; "Later in the evening when arrangements are made / I'll be at the keyhole outside your bedroom door ... 'cos I'm the first to know whenever the plans are laid ... I'll be at the video and I will be watching..." You might have the technology but people don't change, do they?
Sometimes, in its accuracy in pinpointing targets and hitting them, and in the choice of target ("Chelsea"), this album reminds of nothing so much as a 1978 Aftermath. And the misogyny: at least on occasions Elvis has the grace to make clear it's a two way process and he's at fault. Just wanna be your victim...
In these days of the renaissance of the potboiler this is an excellent soon-to-be-popular album. Contemporary in intensity, pace and feel — the "new" wave or not question being irrelevant by now — and popular potentially — as in 'good strong material well played' — without pandering. It's difficult to fault. Personally these ears find Elvis less than loveable, let alone likeable, but that's not what he deals in. "Sometimes I almost feel. Just like a human being." Too bitter? He nevertheless commands respect. And, what's rare these days in a popular performer, he lets the outside world in.