Next Tuesday, Rhino Records is re-releasing Elvis Costello's caustic classic This Year's Model, and the timing, even if inadvertent, is perfect. Costello's sophomore effort, which was named Rolling Stone's Album of the Year in 1978, is like a heart-shaped box filled with rotting cod instead of chocolates, and like all great anti-Valentines, this one arrives a good five days after Feb. 14.
It's part of a repackaging of Costello's back catalogue, which Rhino is issuing three albums at a time over the course of several months. (Brutal Youth and Blood & Chocolate are in this, the second batch, and Armed Forces, Imperial Bedroom and Mighty Like a Rose are coming in a group sometime later in the year.) The why-bother bar is set pretty high for all this, because Costello's first 11 albums already got the re-release-with-bonus-track treatment from Rykodisc in the early '90s.
To clear this hurdle, Rhino is including a second CD with every album, offering demos, B-sides and previously unreleased tracks that will be new to all but Costello's most rabid bootleggers. For This Year's Model, that means seven cuts that Rykodisc didn't tender, including demos for "You Belong to Me" and "Radio, Radio," a couple of live numbers from the Stiffs Live Tour of 1977, as well as a version of the Damned's "Neat, Neat, Neat," which was part of a single that came with the British edition of the album.
But what makes Model worth yet another look is the original songs, which have lost miraculously little of their bite nearly a quarter-century after they first sank their teeth in our ankles. Costello at the time was just 23 years old, a former computer-punch-card operator for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, a suburban lad who'd become one of pop's most praised commodities thanks to his debut, My Aim Is True. But applause seemed only to infuriate the former Declan McManus; instead of a gracious curtsy, Model amped up the anger.
If you never saw the album cover — which features Costello standing behind a camera and wearing a wedding band — you'd never guess this was the work of a married man. Nearly half the songs on Model refer to masturbation, and in all but a few Elvis is the rejected swain, pleading for another chance ("Lipstick Vogue") or hanging up the phone just as a former girlfriend picks up the receiver ("No Action"). No one before or since has given such eloquent, bitter voice to the self-loathing of hopeless teenage love, or the torturous gamesmanship of dating.
"I call you Betty Felon because you are a pretty villain / And I think that I should tell them that you'd make a pretty killin'" he sings on "Living in Paradise," during one of his more playful moments. "Don't act like you're above me / Just look at your shoes," he begs on the less playful "Lip Service." And there's plenty of flat-out desperation here, including this withering sentiment from "Lipstick Vogue": "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor / You've got to cut it out."
But for all its acid, Model is a pop record, and a smooth, glistening pop record, too. That's its subversive little secret — you can ignore its resentments and dance to it. Costello wasn't a punk and never recorded anything as anarchic as the Sex Pistols, but he fastened punk's energy and venom to the comfort food of '60s pop, in particular the Beatles, Aftermath-era Rolling Stones and the Small Faces, a band that, by Costello's own admission, he was shamelessly cribbing from at the time. The collapsing drumbeat that marks the end of "No Action," for instance, is lifted straight from the Small Faces' "Tin Soldier."
Costello also lucked into a dream team of backup players. For most songs, the Attractions — bassist Bruce Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve, and drummer Pete Thomas — seem locked in a competition to outshine both each other and Elvis. (The trio would later make an album called Mad About the Wrong Boy.) Much of the time, the three of them sound like kids trying to nudge their way to the front of a class photo; at one point on "You Belong to Me," Thomas is doing a diving bass run that's straight from the Who's playbook, while Nieve hammers incessantly at the top note on his keyboard.
The rivalry never steps on the music, perhaps because Nick Lowe was refereeing this game. Model is the moment when Lowe comes into his own as a producer. Putting a cheerful spin on mordant thoughts was his specialty, a trick he'd been performing for years on his own songs, including the anti-label diatribe "I Love My Label." Lowe gives a gloss that added snarl to Costello's voice and he made Nieve's Farfisa organ sound so menacing and beautiful that a few hundred skinny-tie bands would soon try to imitate it.
None of them would come close, and within a few years Elvis himself had forsaken '60s pop in favor of music that reflected his passion for R&B and later country. For sheer rage, he'd never approach anything close to Model again. But it has enough well-crafted hostility to stand for the ages, and it's still the ex-lover's forget-me-not that you can't get out of your head.