It's the glasses. No, maybe it's the way his knees knock together that make him look like a personification of London Bridge. Or could it be his "I was a rock 'n' roller in 1967" garb? The question is what exactly is the appeal of Elvis Costello, that musical refugee from a Charles Atlas advertisement.
The answer lies not in the reasons stated above, but in the area which seems to be experiencing the most popular neglect. That facet of this sonic curiosity is Costello's music, which is not altogether ridiculous or unsensible as his appearance might suggest.
His latest album, This Year's Model, is an intriguing escapade into the world of those with big intentions and little or no success in actualizing their amorous goals. The material is either horribly tragic or excruciatingly funny, depending on one's point of view; but in either case, Costello promises choice musical entertainment and/or stimulation, with all kinds of little surprises along the way.
Side one bursts open with Costello's underrecorded voice blankly spitting out: "I don't wanna kiss you / I don't wanna touch" before his explosively powerful backup band, The Attractions, which sound as though they were locked into a rehearsal studio fifteen years ago to rehearse and someone finally came along and let them come
out onto record, get into the act and provide just the right intensity which is required for Costello's material.
The tune, "No Action," sets the tone for the record with these ensuing lines: "I don't want to talk to you / 'Cause I don't miss you that much / I'm not a telephone junkie / I told you that we were just good friends / ...I don't wanna phone you / 'Cause I'll just wanna put you down." This is the story of his life, as either the girl wanted too much or gave too little while he was giving his all or just giving up.
"This Year's Girl" follows with its declamatory gestures and its sneering lust. "Those disco synthesizers / And those tranquilizers / All those body building prizes / But no midnight alibis / All this and no surprises for this year's girl." Here it seems as though Elvis has got himself hooked on a jet setter with non-jet-setter internal fortitude; and he chooses to capitalize on her incapacities. It's a behind the back, surveillance type of put down, a form which is evident in other parts of the record.
In "Living in Paradise," he surreptitiously proclaims:"You don't think you know the who the boy is that you're touching / But ill be at the video and you two I'll be watching." The song is a minor gem with its spritely little beat, as Costello once again proves that there are more ways than one to treat the woman who's done him wrong. Instead of picking up a barbell when he was just about ready to pack it up, as Mr. Atlas would have recommended, Elvis picked up a guitar and began to "develop" himself through his music.
The result of all this self-improvement has been the emergence of a totally idealist philosophy. "Hand in Hand" opens with: "No, don't ask me to apologize / I won't ask you to forgive me / But if I'm gonna go down / You're gonna come with me." The girl getting this guy has got to be willing to suffer any consequences which he or she may induce. It's all or nothing; with the consequence being that the ultimate maiden willing to risk it all is still looming in the realm of his imagination.
"You Belong to Me" reinforces this theme as he lays down these guidelines: "I don't want to be a goody goody / I don't want just anybody / Saying you belong to me." It should be no wonder why Elvis has retreated to his seclusory punkishness.
"Little Triggers" focuses on communication once again. "I don't want to be hung up, strung up / When you don't call up." He is trying ever so desperately to avoid that relationship that might change his outlook. When he does make attempts, he only expects disappointment. "Lip Service," he says, is all she'll ever get from him until she changes her mind as he spends anxious hour's sitting by a mute telephone waiting for that sign of reconsidering. His situation is paradoxical; he knows it; and he does essentially nothing to improve it. He could alter his standards; but that would only make it not worth his while. For now, he'd rather hang out on "The Beat," a bump-along bit of commentary, where "I don't want to be your lover / I just want to be your victim." Obviously, he gets off on rejection.
"Radio Radio" is the final dosage of pompous slopsism as he blatantly decries the radio format which would serve to promote him and get his message(s) across. The charging melody strikes a blow to the system, as he audaciously leers: "I want to bite the hand that feeds me / I want to bite that hand so dearly." The song is an open attack on "anesthetizing" radio programmers and their superiors. it is a furthering of the Costello principle which holds to something like "Just try and support me, and I'll turn it against myself." Indeed, this man is a difficult character to come to terms with. If it wasn't for his musical genius, it is hard to imagine him being at total peace with anything.
Whatever the attitudes, This Year's Model is both musically and conceptually a fascinating record. Rarely does one find an artist with such guts and such personal improprieties. As to what internally drives this man, only his guitar knows for sure.