Considering that the pop idols of the Seventies have, by and large, presented themselves as preening narcissists, transvestite exhibitionists, and (lately) self-mutilating nihilists, it's somehow heartening to find that the writer and performer of the toughest, freshest, most intriguing rock-and-roll album of an unusually lively season steps onto the world's stage as the definitive Twerp for Our Time. That Elvis Costello, whose debut album on Columbia is My Aim Is True, can affect a look that is closer to Woody Allen than to the departed King of Rock whose name he has had the effrontery to appropriate is, of course, merely what's going to get you to notice him. Fortunately, though, it's his music that's going to keep you hooked, and for once the music counts for more than the image, charming though it is.
Describing Costello's music in terms of influences is fun because they're such canny ones. But ultimately it does him an injustice, for (and this is something he shares with his namesake) the influences are so thoroughly digested, even at this early stage in his career (he's a wet-behind-the-ears twenty-two). One could say that at times he sounds eerily like Bruce Springsteen as well as like Nick Lowe, who produced Elvis' albums; that his songs range from basic, blues-flavored rock to early Sixties pop-rock to country-flavored ballads gorgeous enough to have been written by the Eagles: that he gets exceptionally rich-sounding backing from a basically stark instrumental lineup (there are next to no overdubs); and that his lyrics, which he claims are motivated solely by "revenge and guilt," are the most cruelly, tellingly misanthropic broadsides since middle-period Dylan. And yet, though all that is true, it doesn't come close to catching the feeling of the music, of conveying to you just how distinctive and intelligent the songs on My Aim Is True actually are.
You'll simply have to listen, I suppose. So check out the remarkable misterioso mood summoned up by "Mystery Dance" and "Waiting for the End of the World," the insinuating sexiness of a ballad titled "Alison," the straight-ahead rock-and-roll panache of "Less than Zero," or the sheer craftsmanship of an exhilarating Merseybeat Cowboy number called "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." What you'll hear is the work of someone who comes as close to being the Compleat Rock Star as anyone within recent memory — driven, funny, and totally original. As one of Columbia's flacks has so uniquely put it, if he didn't already exist, someone would have had to invent him.