Tuesday, December 31, 2013

This Year's Model (1978/1993)

(Also this.)

I guess it took me 15 years to fix on This Year's Model as Elvis Costello's best album and my stone favorite by him. That's partly because for many years there Costello pumped out product, fine product, like a crazy man, a regular dot-matrix printing machine churning through the reams. So I had good reasons for setting this album aside—Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, Taking Liberties, other stray singles, etc. As it turned out, however, This Year's Model improved immeasurably with the 1993 Rykodisc CD, which with a few deft moves and additions clarified so much. There always were version problems with this one. The original UK release had "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Night Rally" instead of "Radio, Radio," likely the biggest difference between the two, and for me a huge one. So I am happy settling for that year's model—1993—over the original which I knew.

And loved deeply, make no mistake. In 1978, the vinyl album—though Columbia product and marketed aggressively (if perhaps not expertly)—looked more like an art object, with mock "selfie" photographs on back and front, minimal information, and a dust sleeve imprinted with bright primary-color fashion and/or consumer objects. On the album label itself "Columbia" was replaced with "Costello." It may not have ultimately been a major marketing inspiration, but it made a point I wanted to believe, that something big had arrived. Trivia point: Costello requested that photographer Chris Gabrin play "Hotel California" during the cover shoot because he wanted to look pissed off.

So it was already a great album then. Take the bookends (at least on the US version): "No Action" (at 1:59) and "Radio, Radio" could well be the most ferocious things on it. "I don't wanna kiss you, I don't wanna touch," Costello's muffled bare vocal opens it, and then comes the band. I have one of those convenient theories about Elvis Costello and the Attractions, which is that the latter is to the former as Crazy Horse is to Neil Young, his most natural house band not least because they are fitted so well to him and bring out the best. Together they are greater than the sum of the parts. The debut My Aim Is True was a good album filled with great songs but the difference was clear in three seconds' time, which is as long as the band takes to come clattering in on "No Action."

It is the rhythm section that moves This Year's Model, two guys named liked brothers but who aren't (Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas), prowling, seething, constantly on the attack. Tom Waits has said that Pete Thomas is one of the best rock drummers alive, and that sounds about right when you're listening to this album. Pete Thomas hits them hard, but he's also capable of Keith-Moon-style frenzies that never get lost in the thrash and only propel the momentum. His soul brother Bruce the bass player is tight with him, and gets his own moments to shine and/or rip off the Rolling Stones (in homage, of course). Keyboards guy Steve Nieve stays pretty close mostly to farfisa organ tones here, which works fine. On This Year's Model especially, Costello's primary instrument is more properly his vocal than his guitar-playing, which is mostly another rhythmic element, and perfectly adequate. But the nervous, raging, ferret-like attack of his singing, coupled with the often dense and punning lyrics, can serve up a head-twisting pummeling.

But let's hold up a second on "Radio, Radio." Poised at the very end of the vinyl album, last track on the second side, that song seemed intended to sound a major (and obvious) theme, which came off so compelling that I took it in many ways for the album's theme at large—recall also Costello's Saturday Night Live performance a few months before the album's release (subbing for the Sex Pistols), when he made a show of stopping "Less Than Zero" midway and breaking into "Radio, Radio." He had been told not to play it and it resulted in a 10-year ban from the show, which seems weird now—but perhaps indicates something about the issue that set him howling.

In fact, this furious resentment was echoed among other significant punk-rock players (the Ramones perhaps the best other example), a gnawing sense—and I shared it too—about the goddam radio systematically denying them. "Radio, Radio" is a showcase turn, for sure, specifically leveled at the American market by its abrupt inclusion on the album over the songs eliminated, which were deemed "too British" by the American handlers at Columbia. And as I say, I have a good deal of sympathy with the view—it's clear to me the corruptions of radio harmed punk-rock and popular music both in that time. But, as always, the winners get to write the history, and over time, for all its fine attributes, "Radio, Radio" has not aged real well. It now seems radically diminished, more on the order of petulant, insidery whining. The song roars, it rocks, but it also wallows just a little unattractively in its own envy and impotence. There's a whiff of privilege and entitlement.

So that sends me back to the album's title for a better sense of its intentions—after all, however passionate Costello was about "Radio, Radio" at the time, it was basically tacked onto a secondary version of the album. The clues are there, in the title, the art, explicitly in many of the songs: fashion, seductive superficialities, beauty, frustration, and horror. It may seem strange, or not, coming from a guy who looks like Elvis Costello, but I think there's a deeper point here about surfaces and interiorities.

Start with the two lips songs. Start with the fact that there are lips songs at all, let alone two of them. Already things are self-consciously fashionable (and sassy). "Lip Service" is a classic Costello exercise, a zippy freight train driven by a lovely bass figure in the chorus, built around the kinds of puns Costello makes almost reflexively. It's his favorite theme, especially in his early recordings—the frustrations and consequent bile raised by attempting relationships, the powerlessness encountered. The singer has been cruelly dumped and all he can sputter in reply is that from then on his politeness (or possibly his kissing) will be only a sham. "Lip service is all you'll ever get from me … If you change your mind you can send it in a letter to me," he says. That's telling her. This is the kind of song Costello would spend the next five years writing over and over, filling one whole album, Get Happy!!, with them.

"Lipstick Vogue" is even better, practically epic in the way it moves within its tidy three and a half minutes. The singer is all fucked up again about connections ("Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor / You've got to cut it out"), but now the object(s) of his adoration and loathing have been further abstracted. You really get the sense here the Costello is looking into the abyss, but what is he looking at? A woman? A model? A commodity? He seems to be insisting it's a real person: "It's you, not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue." Meanwhile, the song has crazy dynamics. At nine seconds in it hits a groove strung tight enough to snap necks, and proceeds, wandering through breaks and bridges that pivot at strange angles, backing up Costello's vocal, which plays like a breakdown as much as anything.

As a song, as a rave-up, as an interesting musical exercise, as a showcase for band members and songwriting, "Lipstick Vogue" works remarkably well and sounds as fresh as ever. I think Costello is really trying to get it all sorted out here: beauty, fascination, consumer culture, love, rage, meaning. But his mind is going a million miles an hour. I take it not so much as a complaint about the constant pressure of media image saturation as an expression of it, which radiates out to the artwork. He is psychically twitching above the neck, a foretelling of Max Headroom, absorbing and reflecting sensation, but the metaphorical rest of him—hands, feet, heart (well, part of his heart)—are rooted in firm ground. The band and the songwriting are in peak form.

Every song here is at least good, and the totality of them, coming one after another, can make your head swim. "The Beat" gets all wrapped up in itself, musically and thematically ("stop looking at the scenery / I keep thinkin' about your mother"), with the band staying hot on the one. "Pump it Up," next up, is equally hot out of it, with a big fat bass figure leading the way over a cliff. Costello gets to practically snarling at points. "You Belong to Me" is gaudy with Rolling Stones riffs, a cute throwaway gesture for a skinny guy in a jacket. Costello is clearly at a level of songwriting here that others only dream of.

I should also say some things about the songs that were "new" to me. Context may play an interesting role here. I knew both "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Night Rally" from Taking Liberties, the US-only roundup of missing tracks, b-sides, and whatnot. It was a pretty big album, with 20 tracks, and honestly it never held my interest long enough to notice more than a handful of the songs—it seemed a little weak to me even for a b-sides album. "Chelsea" was one of the songs I noticed but "Night Rally" was not. Now, for what it's worth, "Chelsea" is a song I'm more indifferent to, while "Night Rally" really jumped out when I heard it again in the Rykodisc version, sounding dark and stirring like the title. Whether that's something about the sequencing, I can't say, but it sure sounds good following on immediately from "Lipstick Vogue." In 1993, it became one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Hearing This Year's Model again in the '90s and becoming obsessed all over again with basically the same music and songs sealed the deal. As much as anything, This Year's Model is an undeniable rock 'n' roll document, giant, roaring, original, smart as tacks. That a way was found to make it even better made for a pretty neat twofer.


  1. Thanks for this. I'm not the one to talk about Costello ... This Year's Model remains the only album of his I would play on purpose, not because his other albums are bad, but because I don't know them. This Year's Model has never gotten old for me (nor has "Radio, Radio").

  2. Such a tremendously important album for me at the time, I listened to it as many times as I could (I was in grade nine, I think) each and every day for about a year -- until Armed Forces came out, probably (to call myself Elvis-obsessed would be an understatement). My friend and I even camped out at a downtown Holiday Inn the morning after Costello played our home town in '78, and managed to get all four members of the band to sign our copies of This Years Model -- definitely my most prized piece of vinyl. But I more or less agree with you re: "Radio, Radio" -- and "Pump It Up" is a little hard for me to hear now as well (though both are still powerful songs, and in certain moments can catch me up).

  3. [scott woods BTW, not sure how/why I came out as "s" -- some weird google thing, I think]