Elvis Costello has short hair and big horn-rim glasses, and he stands posed awkwardly in a funny old-fashioned jacket and pants turned up at the ankles, clutching a Fender guitar and at first you think this is some kind of put on. But be assured: This is no put on. The Pelvis hasn't sounded this good since he was drafted.
For one thing, Elvis Costello sounds absolutely nothing like his pot-bellied namesake (thank God. The last thing we need is another Presley imitator). Secondly, he sounds nothing like Buddy Holly, whom he somewhat resembles physically.
In actuality Costello is, even among the punk bands, the first person in years to really come to grips with the original basics of rock and roll. Not raw power rock and roll, like The Sex Pistols, but the instrumentally tight sound of early '60s neo-R&B. The album has an astounding live feeling, as if it was recorded in a dark, smoky club.
It's not really a punk rock record, you couldn't pogo to it for instance, but it is high quality New Wave. It has all the right credentials: the discarding of the non-essentials instrumentally, and of worn out trite themes lyrically. Costello is an excellent example of the broad spectrum of New Wave, first because he has seen no need to imitate any other punk bands, secondly because he does his own thing so extremely well.
He is substantially better than such equally non-political bands as The Ramones, for example, because he does nut need to rely on dead-pan satire to be "fun." He is also the instrumental equal of such punk masters as The Clash and The Stranglers. He shows it is still possible for someone to play straightforward rock and roll and enjoy it, even in the laid-back / boogie / funk / disco seventies.
Typical of Costello's work is "Blame It On Cain" ("Don't blame it on me."), with solid but restrained drumming and often choppy lead guitar. While Costello's sound is very much early '60s (and on song, "Mystery Dance," is straight '50s rock), his music is nothing so arid as the so-called "rock and roll revivals" that turn up every few years. This applies to virtually all New Wave, it is a resurgence of the spirit of rock and roll, not a sterile imitation of old masters.
Costello is different in adhering more closely to the early '60s sound, but here again he does so only in spirit, not in actuality. He lacks the cuteness of many early '60s groups (a once attractive quality that has been so horribly mocked by the likes of The Bay City Rollers), and his lyrics deal with age old themes in a realistic, earthy way that would never have occurred to The Searchers or The Dave Clark Five.
Several songs stand out among the 13 on the album. The album title comes from "Alison," which Is a sentimental ballad (a punk rocker recording a sentimental ballad?). It must be said that it is not your average sentimental ballad.
"I'm Not Angry" denies its title in the way the female backing spits out the word "Angry" in the chorus. Being non- political, it's being cheated on that he's "not angry" about rather than the state of the world — everyone knows that sex is more important than politics.
Easily the best on the album is "Watching The Detectives," complete with James Bond guitar. A strange, instrumentally engaging song about how his girlfriend is more interested in watching American cop shows than going to bed with him. Reality merges with fantasy. "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake." The production is arresting, and the song is not the throwaway nonsense it easily could have been.
Now I don't honestly expect the middle-aged ex-hippies at Top 40 radio to start blasting out "Anarchy In The U.K.," "White Riot," and "Something Better Change" sandwiched between whatever is popular with Top 40 radio these days. But can anyone explain to me exactly what is wrong with such an excellent and decidedly unpolitical rock and roller as Elvis Costello? If radio had been like this in the early '60s, Canada and the U.S. would never have heard of The Stones and the Who, and the "British invasion" would have consisted solely of Herman's Hermits.
This is a fine album. Costello more than deserves his place among those at the top of the punk rockpile. I, for one, will be very interested to see where he goes from here.