Graded on a Curve:
Elvis Costello,
My Aim Is True

Celebrating Elvis Costello, born on this day in 1954.Ed.

The early Elvis Costello was the very personification of the angry young man. He may have looked like a twerp, but he had a chip on his shoulder the size of fat blues harmonica guy John Popper. He was perpetually peeved, was Costello, in the fashion of 1966 Bob Dylan, and like Dylan he could—and did—spew vitriol inspired enough to scald. Listening to his debut LP, 1977’s My Aim Is True, it’s as clear as day he’d just as soon see you paralyzed. So forget about the Buddy Holly glasses and the gap between his two front teeth and all the rest of it—musically, the man was a walking, talking third rail.

Costello (aka Declan Patrick MacManus) was born in 1954, just in time to ride the first waves of punk and new wave. He worked office jobs (they’ll always make you angry) while simultaneously looking for a record label. Stiff Records anted up, and Costello recorded My Aim Is True. Just how angry was he? There was the iconic moment on Saturday Night Live when he stopped the band during a song opening to replace it with “Radio Radio”—an attack on the media that SNL executives had expressly forbidden him to play. This moment alone increased his snottiness factor, which sold him records, which may or may not have been calculated. He said later, in an imagined interview I had with him—“I was never really pissed. I wanted to be James Taylor. But there already was a James Taylor. You can’t have two James Taylors. The world would be destroyed by fire and rain.”

My Aim Is True was recorded before Costello put together The Attractions, although future Attraction Steve Nieve provides organ and piano overdubs on the great “Watching the Detectives,” while Nick Lowe also put in a cameo. Instead Costello made do with members of—no joke—a California country rock band called Clover, some of whom went on to help form (no!) Huey Lewis and the News and play with (Double No!) the Doobie Brothers. Let me tell you, the shock of discovering that this was the ilk backing Costello was enough to put me off my dinner (a can of Hormel’s Chili topped with two delicious squares of processed American cheese food). There are some things you’re better off not knowing, and I’ll admit that My Aim Is True doesn’t sound quite the same to me anymore. It sounds polluted by Doobies.

But before we discuss the songs, I need to get something off my chest, something that been chewing at me since listening to the LP for the first time in decades. Put as plainly as possible, My Aim Is True sounds a bit anemic and enervated, especially when compared to the LPs (1978’s This Year’s Model and 1979’s Armed Forces) that followed. There. I said it. In my memory the album is all aggression and adrenalin. I no longer hear them; nor does the acidic anger come through as clearly as it once did. (The critic Robert Christgau wrote of Costello’s follow-up LP, “he now sounds as angry as he says he is,” which just about nails it.) Anyway, none of my complaints mean that My Aim Is True isn’t great; it simply means it’s not as scathing or biting as I once thought, and it remains a mystery as to how much his forming The Attractions for LP No. 2 made a difference.

My Aim Is True opens with the jumpy bummer “Welcome to the Working Week,” which inverts the usual TGIF theme, presumably due to a desire on Costello’s part to make clear that life ain’t no party, it ain’t no disco, it’s a cubicle in a cubicle farm where everyone keeps their head down. The next track “Miracle Man” is a tad sluggish for my tastes, but at least Costello sounds honestly aggrieved, because he can’t live up to his girl’s expectations and never will. Shit, not even walking on water will help. It includes the wonderful put-down line, “Everybody loves you so much, girl/I just don’t know how you stand the strain,” and it’s this type of bile that helps Costello score an impressive 11 on the old Exasperation Meter.

“No Dancing” could be a cut off the soundtrack to 1984’s Footloose but isn’t; instead it’s a variation of “Miracle Man,” with Costello singing about yet another po-faced somebody whose woman is putting him through Hell. It has a kind of ’60s girl group opening, and that feel persists as the guy in this song gets down on his knees just like the guy in “Miracle Man” got down on his knees and I see a theme emerging. “Blame It on Cain” is a funky number with a guitar solo by the guy who would go on to be a Doobie Brother, along with some nice drumming by another guy who would go on to play with Tommy Tutone, but BEFORE they recorded “867-5309/Jenny.”

Then comes “Alison,” most likely the song Costello will best be remembered for and one that has always irked me. Perhaps it’s the song’s opening, which could be by Billy Joel, or the oh so tasteful guitar picking and simple drumming, but what I really think bothers me is that the song is more than a tad too saccharine for my tastes. That said he almost wins me over during the long fade, where he repeats “My aim is true” over and over until you finally think, “Okay, your song is treacle, but your aim is true!”

“Sneaky Feelings” is almost a novelty tune, given its bouncy feel and catchy chorus, and like “Alison” shows off a side of Costello that is not an alienated angry young man but a pop classicist with a good handle on how to handle hooks, riffs, and all the other paraphernalia of good songwriting. As for “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” it boasts a fantastic opening and is punchy and melodic and chock full of great lines like, “Oh, I said, “I’m so happy I could die”/She said, “Drop dead” then left with another guy.” And, “Oh, I used to be disgusted/And now I try to be amused/Since their wings have got rusted/You know the angels wanna wear my red shoes.”

And Costello follows that one with the harrowing “Less Than Zero,” a mid-tempo but funky number with great choruses and that great line, “Everything means less than zero.” So far so good, but the lyrics are a horror show about one “Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo” and his sister, and what I interpret to be multiple cases of child rape, or worse. Listening to the lyrics (something I never did before) left me chilled, and it’s no wonder that Bret Easton Ellis—whose novel Less Than Zero is chilling in quite a different fashion—chose the title he did.

“Mystery Dance” is a fiery rockabilly take with great guitar and probably the best rocker on the album. A minute and a half jolt of pure rock electricity, Costello is a man mystified, and in his own words, “Can’t do it any more and I’m not satisfied.” The question in this mystery song is what is it he’s singing about? Sex? Who knows? “Pay It Back” is just as laid back as “Mystery Dance” is frenetic, and it’s hard to believe I used to think that the songs on this LP were uniformly revolutionary and angry. He intends to pay somebody back, presumably in terms of revenge, but he doesn’t sound as Old-Testament-God-pissed as Dylan would have on Highway 61 Revisited. No, Costello could just as well be Huey Lewis on this one.

“I’m Not Angry” is a return to form, despite that kinda dumb “angry” that gets whispered every time a jealous Costello sings, “I’m not angry.” This is Costello at his most caustic, tossing off lacerating one liners to a great guitar and sealing them all up in the superb chorus, “There’s no such thing as an original sin,” which he repeats—accompanied by that great guitar—until the song fades out. “Waiting for the End of the World” opens with a cool guitar riff and moves along at a mid-tempo pace with that guitarist playing some great riffs and the drums making a cool din. This one reminds me of Dylan, partly due to its semi-surreal word play and partly due to the second half of the chorus, which goes, “Dear Lord I sincerely hope you’re coming/Cuz you really started something.” Straight from the bleachers on Highway 61, those lines. As for the tune, top-notch from opening to fade out.

The U.S. edition of the original LP ended with the great “Watching the Detectives,” which is notable for its film noir feel. The lyrics flash past like stills from a 1956 thriller starring William Holden, and they all spell murder, one mysterious dame, and an acute case of paranoia. And the lyrics are a perfect match for the song’s tone and melody. The guitar is tuned to the key of mystery, and Costello sings the tune with urgency, uttering lines like, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take/She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.” Meanwhile the detectives “shoot, shoot, shoot” while somebody scratches at the window and Elvis repeats that “Watching the detectives” over and over until fadeout, and I’m not sure what happened but I would really love to see the movie.

As everybody knows, Costello has gone on to establish a career in which he’s dabbled in multiple genres of music; a respected musical elder statesman, he is not above recording albums with Burt Bacharach. And that’s all well and fine, I suppose. But I’ll always prefer the angry young Costello, the one striking that iconic pose on the cover of My Aim Is True. And I’ll always wish the well of his anger had been deeper, because I prefer Costello the firebrand to Costello the dabbler. The world is always in need of angry young men—or angry older men for that matter—with mouths like machine guns, and I wish Costello were amongst their ranks. I can almost imagine what his first producer thought, listening to him vent his bile for the first time. Probably something along the lines of, “Dear Lord I sincerely hope you’re coming/Cuz you really started something.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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