There's something special about Elvis. Costello, that is. How else do you explain this 22-year-old, British computer operator emerging with a debut album, My Aim Is True (Columbia 35037) that is this year's best rock LP. Its 13 songs echo everything tough and pop from rock's best history. I can hum them all, but I don't understand any of them because Costello's songs are the most fascinating blend of classic hooks, terse rhythm and blues, and lyrical enigma since the Band's Music from Big Pink.
The word started spreading almost simultaneously with the release of this album a few months earlier on a small British label, Stiff Records. The album zoomed up the British charts and began to receive FM airplay in the States, rare for an import. More tell-tale was the fact that it was rock in 1977 without stumbling across that weird and magic name, Elvis Costello. No one seems to know anything about Costello's past and, of course, he has the looks of a tawdry rock 'n' roll relic, sort of an awkward and frazzled Buddy Holly-type. The music and his future were enough to lure Columbia.
The temptation is to lump Costello in with rock's growing body of musical reactionaries — Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Southside Johnny, Willy De Ville, Graham Parker, and Frankie Miller. The Spector-styled "No Dancing," the frenetic rockabilly rhythms of "Mystery Dance" or "Blame It on Cain," cut straight out of the Band's best Biblical fury, show that Costello, like those artists, has a penchant for earlier rock styles.
But Costello is an odd man out. He has wedged a gap between himself and his contemporaries by refusing to invest musical sentiment in yesteryear and its romanticization. There is no talk here of the past glory of back-streets, night moves, first loves, ancient Chevies of tough guys. Even Costello's rockabilly dance number becomes an unresolved mystery, with Elvis screaming. "I tried and I tried and I'm still mystified / I can't do it anymore and I'm not satisfied." Flat-out bopping becomes a problem in 1977.
If Costello has fallen back on archetypal theme with idiosyncrasy and attached them to sardonic and occasionally surreal dissection of the modern relationship. The result is rock 'n' roll that bristles with a kind of instantaneous and unrelenting realism. He makes it easy to get into the songs and hard to find your way out. In "I'm Not Angry," while the band plays at a furious pace, singing the chorus with such vengeance that the lyric are subverted, Costello offers his girl understanding on a barbed hook: "I know what you're doing / I know where you've been / I know where, but I don't care-/ 'Cause there's no such thing as an original sin."
The band — Costello on guitar and an American band, Clover, behind him — play with the same economy and cracking tension that characterized the Band behind Dylan in 1966 — every drum beat and guitar lick is clearly in service to the songs. The Dylan reference is particularly relevant because Costello's lyrics have the same sacrilegious bite, the same surreal twist and obscure personages.
In an ominous and stark reggae tune, "Watching the Detective," Costello tosses out, "I don't know how much more of this I can take. / She's filling her nails while they drag the lake." One of Costello's catchiest songs is "Less than Zero," an updated "Hang On Sloopy" that seems to be about a guy bummed out by his girlfriend's parents — typical teen angst. Later I realized that this irresistible ditty has something to do with a murder and a Nazi coming to America! The truth is I don't know what many these songs are about. Like Dylan's best, I'm living on lyrical snatches that grow in meaning in relation to everything that is misunderstood.
Costello's voice like his appearance, is an awkward but moving affair. It cracks and strains but never fails to create drama and sustain credibility reaches its peak in "Alison," the album's only and perhaps his best song, if only because something so sincere and moving, and without hackneyed sentiment, is rare in rock.
Part of the reason this is rock's best year since the '60s rolled over is Elvis Costello. If you're wondering why Elvis Costello, the best answer may comes as "Alison" fades out and Elvis endlessly intones, "my aim is true ... my aim is true..."