The band photographs on the liner notes show a 23-year-old Elvis Costello tastefully clad in a suit, leering at you through his signature spectacles from behind a camera. With the exception of age (and a full head of hair), very little has changed for one of pop music's most enduring and elusive iconoclasts.
From the first notes of "No Action," the listener is first struck by how little Costello's voice has changed in over 30 years. In fact, it hasn't changed at all. He still possesses all the crooning swagger, seething anger and seductive pleadings on his most recent albums, no matter if they veer from bluegrass, lounge jazz or straight ahead rock 'n' roll. Unlike Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and other contemporaries, the ever-youthful Costello continues to sound like the stubborn, insatiable 23-year-old version of himself who was arrested for obstruction while busking outside London's Columbia Records head office, refusing to leave until he was signed to a record deal.
That stunt paid off, however, and he was signed to Columbia within days of his release, and in 1978 This Year's Model was the follow-up effort to his 1977 debut My Aim Is True. Reviews were mixed, as music critics and label execs were confused, unsure how to categorize and market this angrier version of Buddy Holly. His pop sensibilities, combined with his high sense of lyricism and literacy, put him outside the grasp of your average pop music listener; further, his tense, edgy, punchy band (the Attractions) veered more towards punk than the emerging phenomenon known as disco, thereby leaving him in the late '70s genre equivalent of No Man's Land: new wave.
Without disrespecting that movement and its contributions to pop music in the '80s, Costello certainly resented being painted into a corner that was too clean cut to be punk, too intelligent and well-crafted to be tossed in the disco heap. Which perhaps explains the album's cover photo a bit more: Costello appears to be aiming the camera at you like a gun, turning the usual focus towards celebrity away from himself, instead confronting you with his material.
"Pump It Up," "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," "Little Triggers" and "Radio, Radio" are the most well-known hits here, each with its own clever satirical stabs at pop culture references, from the emerging fashion crimes and mindless coke drone of disco, to the eternal pleadings of a young man in love/lust. Costello is one of the best artists at positing himself as a lover done wrong, then, in the quietest moments of the song, admitting his longing and culpability in the break up. While his more intimate songs have been accused of misogynistic lyrics, he himself counters those charges, claiming the lyrics reflect more "disappointment than disgust."
This Year's Model is one of Costello's highest ranking, best-selling records, and Rolling Stone ranks it as his best album ever. For the young angry man from London, it's an incredible moment in his career — one that reflects his talent, drive and ambition, qualities so rarely seen in young emerging artists.