Sunday, November 25, 2012

Classic Albums: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, This Year's Model

Sometimes thanks to the fates or the unknowable vicissitudes of the universe, I get turned onto the exact right music at the exact right time in my life.  I was lucky enough to experience such a moment of grace at the end of senior year of high school, when I picked up my first Elvis Costello album, This Year's Model.  At that age I was an awkward romantic obsessed with women but too socially maladjusted to do much about it except blow multiple dating opportunities with cute girls due to my inability to woo them properly.  (Evidently not talking to someone because you're too afraid to say the wrong thing might make her think you're not interested.  Who knew?)

I was a young man in need of a different kind of love song, a love song steeped in frustration and bitterness, and Elvis Costello gave me plenty of those songs.  (I actually lived out an incident of the kind described in "I'm Not Angry" where my love interest "went upstairs with the boyfriend while I'm left here to listen.")  Costello just seemed like he understood me, from the nerdy classes to his nervy voice.

This Year's Model's sound struck me then, and it still does.  Bruce Thomas' bass is full and up front, Pete Thomas' drums hard hitting, and Steve Nieve's organ, not Costello's guitar, usually carries the melody.  The organ and bass dominated sound, split between the high and low end, gives musical embodiment to the emotional tensions of the lyrics and Costello's voice.  The first track, "No Action," makes it apparent from the beginning that for all its lyrical acrobatics, this record is going to rock hard.  (In fact, I was a little disappointed initially when I started listening to Costello's later output, since it is much less hard edged.)  The tempo is jacked into fifth gear right from the start, and the key lyric "Every time I phone you I just want to put you down" makes it pretty clear that the listener can't expect love songs with happy endings.

"This Year's Model" and "The Beat" shift back into mid tempo, but positively drip with menace and romantic frustration.  Perhaps to break the tension, the next track is "Pump It Up," the best known track on the album and probably the catchiest, anchored by a killer Nieve organ riff.  Once you delve beneath the rave up on the surface, however, the lyrics are a desperate cry of sexual frustration.

From there, side one closes out with "Little Triggers" and "You Belong To Me," which are strongly reminiscent of sixties pop.  "Little Triggers" could pass for a doo-wop homage, and "You Belong to Me" sounds like a much more conventional love song, complete with a catchy hook.

Not to worry, since side two opens with "Hand in Hand," which turns the old love-song forms on their heads.  The romantic title has a sinister intent, when Elvis croons "If I go dooooooowwwn/ You're gonna come with me/ Hand in hand" with musical backing worthy of a Brill Building pop number as performed by the Electric Prunes.  It's a great set up for "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea"'s herky-jerky rhythms and snake and ladder organ lines.

With the mood building, This Year's Model shows why our shuffle playlist rather than album oriented listening habits have hurt us.  Just when you think that things can't get any better, the bright acoustic guitar lead of "Lip Service" cuts through the speakers, a ray of sunshine amidst the claustrophobic sound of the other tracks.  Or so you think, until Costello starts singing with a voice that's grainy and snarly even by his standards.  When he gets to the chorus and accuses everyone of "just going through the motions," my 18-year old non-comformist self felt like he had met his artistic life mentor.

I felt the same thing on "Living in Paradise," when I head the line "the thrill is here but it won't last long/ better have your fun before it moves along/ and you're already looking for/ another fool like me" and on the driving "Lipstick Vogue" with "sometimes love is like a tumor/ you have to cut it out."  Those words seemed to sum up my major frustration of the time, in that I felt such passionate emotions for other people but I had no way of converting those almost torturous feelings into anything real.

With things brought up to such a fever pitch at the end of the record, Costello breaks from emotional matters to politics with "Night Rally," a song aimed at the rise of neo-fascist groups like the National Front in the late 1970s.  It's a sort of anti-anthem, slowly building up to one of Costello's best vocal performances.  When he hits the verse that starts "Oh I know I'm ungrateful" with such passionate fervor, it gets me every time.  Perhaps he included that song last to remind his listeners that there are more important things in that world than our own emotional turmoils, a message I would not have accepted at age 18, but will fully acknowledge now.


Bill said...

Interesting you post this now: I put on Blood & Chocolate yesterday for the first time in probably 10 years. I wavered between that one and This Year's Model, and chose it only because I'd listen to This Year's Model more recently.

I hadn't been the hugest fan of Costello when I was young (the first record of his I remember being new was Armed Forces), but got into him in college. I got really into him, but then got a bit tired of his stuff. He's incredibly capable, but over time I felt that a lot of his stuff simply served as a means to show off vocabulary, musical and otherwise. This record and Get Happy!!! are the two I think really hold together all the way through, and the highlights of Blood and Chocolate are to me tops.

I suppose that when one gets down to it, nobody, not even the very best, leave behind a too-huge collection of great tunes. When I boil it down to the stuff of Costello's that holds up, to me, he's the equal of anyone you would want. Prince is similar--puts out plenty of crap, but so much of his output is great that I accept the crap simply as part of his process. Costello gives us a different variety of crap, but his great stuff's great.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I never would have thought to compare Prince and EC, but it totally works. Some albums like Trust and Imperial Bedroom are so frustrating because they contain moments of absolute brilliance ("New Lace Sleeves," "Beyond Belief," "Man Out of Time," Almost Blue," Watch Your Step", etc) surrounded by forgettable songs.

Bill said...

Imperial Bedroom has what might be my favorite EC tunes, basically the ones you name as well as "You Little Fool." He's so fluent he can kick out stuff that's better than most people's best, but it's filler regardless.

Really enjoying your blog lately, by the way.