by Rick Krueger
“The songs are lyrics, not speeches, and they’re tunes, not paintings. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” — Elvis Costello, 1983, apparently quoting Martin Mull.
On the other hand, would I have ever even heard of Elvis Costello if it hadn’t been for the rock press? Let alone listened to This Year’s Model?
It was early 1978. In my ongoing search for info about Emerson Lake and Palmer and other proggers, I’d discovered the rock magazines at Detroit’s Merit Book Center, combing the latest issues of Circus, Rolling Stone, etc. at every opportunity. (I never said I was looking in the right places.) I came across the latest issue of a magazine I hadn’t seen before — the Boston-based Trouser Press. With a giant pig and the promise of Pink Floyd & ELP articles on the cover. Jackpot.
But Trouser Press was by no means a prog-only magazine. (That came much later.) The feature album review was about a geeky looking guy named Elvis Costello, and his new record, This Year’s Model. Now, I’d seen enough ecstatic reviews of punk-related stuff, including Costello’s acclaimed debut, My Aim Is True, to be skeptical. On the other hand, his truculent attitude and sour song topics, famously summarized as “revenge and guilt,” appealed to the unsociable, somewhat hapless kid I was at the time. So, when I was visiting my brother in Chicago that summer, I bought the album.
Silence. Then a rapid-fire, phlegmy snarl: “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch.” Then the world’s most hyped-up garage band (cheesy combo organ, skittering bass, exploding drums) abruptly blasting through the speakers. “I don’t wanna see you ’cause I don’t miss you that much.” In other words, “you can’t fire me, I quit — and my posse’s coming with me.” I was bowled over; it was unexpectedly, flabbergastingly great — even when the narrative turned creepy. (“I think about the way things used to be/Knowing you’re with him is driving me crazy./Sometimes I phone you when I know you’re not lonely,/But I always disconnect it in time.” Brrr.)
That manic opener, “No Action,” perfectly encapsulates This Year’s Model — song after song raising umbrage to an art form. Immersed in the role of Avenging Dork, Costello confronts his nemeses with impeccable songcraft, bitter wit and frantic wordplay, piling on the perverse imagery, fleetingly unveiling a twisted soul beneath the bile. And the Attractions (Steve Nieve on piano & organ, Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas) keep up all the way, harnessing amphetamine energy to virtuoso playing — to the point that on “Lipstick Vogue,” their instrumental section (a bass solo!) wrenches the spotlight away from Elvis’ ugliest metaphors. (“Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor/You’ve got to cut it out.”) The drummer in my brother’s band thought they were fabulous — and he was a Gentle Giant fan!
For all his keen perception, passion and style, Costello’s corrosive anger quickly, viciously backfired. It destroyed his first marriage and brought him to the point that, insulting Ray Charles in a drunken argument with one of Stephen Stills’ back-up singers, he lost the rock press and spectacularly sabotaged any chance for American stardom. Ultimately, appropriate penance done, Costello made his mark by broadening his range, interspersing projects for jazz ensembles, string quartets, opera singers, ballet orchestras, and current wife Diana Krall with periodic recaps of his early new-wave glory. Still, for me, This Year’s Model remains intensely compelling, a snapshot of a desperate genius trying to burn himself out before he could fade away. That Costello ultimately pulled himself out of the madness and figured out how to live makes it even more resonant.
More Elvis Costello Favorites: from the Attractions era, Armed Forces, Get Happy and Trust. From the solo years, Painted from Memory with Burt Bacharach. This last one is thoroughly astonishing, as Costello’s anguished vocals ride Bacharach’s gorgeous melodies and orchestrations, hanging on for dear life and breaking through to the deepest emotions in his catalog.
Friends and Related Faves:
- Joe Jackson, Look Sharp!, Symphony No. 1, Night and Day II, Volume Four, and Rain. Easily as eclectic as Costello — and sporting a degree in percussion from the Royal Academy of Music! — Jackson blazed a parallel trail, leading another punky quartet whose manic energy didn’t obscure their eager chops and solid chemistry. When they reunited in the 2000s, all the sardonic fun was still there. In the meantime, Jackson tackled wildly divergent projects (salsa, jazzy pop, a live album of all new songs), finally landing at Sony Classical for great stuff like Symphony No. 1, a long-form, four movement neoclassical work scored for chamber rock ensemble. Jackson also wrote one of my favorite rock memoirs, A Cure for Gravity, full of sharp, serious observations about music and musicians of all types.
- Nick Lowe, The Brentford Trilogy (The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood, The Convincer). Bassist for pub-rockers Brinsley Schwarz, buddies with retro-king Dave Edmunds in Rockpile, one of Johnny Cash’s sons-in-law, Lowe wound up in the producer’s chair for Costello’s first six albums almost by accident, giving the Attractions a compellingly brittle, brash sound and Elvis a hit song with “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding.” With a disappointing solo career on the skids, Lowe reinvented himself by leaning into the gentler end of country, soul and pre-rock pop. “You Inspire Me” on Dig My Mood is an utter gem, the best ballad that Nat King Cole never got a chance to sing.
- Squeeze, East Side Story. Chris Difford’s deft lyrical vignettes (more whimsical and working-class than Costello’s) and Glenn Tilbrook’s sunny melodies were a natural fit; some called them the Lennon & McCartney of the 1980s. For this album, Costello produced and sang backing vocals while Squeeze covered the waterfront of roots-rock styles and romantic entanglements. Ace vocalist/organist Paul Carrack, later a sideman for Lowe and a star with Mike + the Mechanics, sang the killer lead vocal on the band’s biggest hit, “Tempted.” (Another example of how “writing about music … ” has its upside: I found out about this album reading the British music weeklies during a college choir tour of Scotland & England.)