ELVIS COSTELLO - This Years Model LP
Anyone can whine. But as a seemingly infinite stream of cliché-obsessed singer/songwriters using misery as a thinly veiled ploy to get laid has proven, very few people can do it well. Drawing inspiration from banal personal miseries and girlfriend tragedies may indeed turn songwriting into some kind of a cleansing experience, but nobody wants to be sprayed in the face with someone else's emotional Lysol. And being preached to? That's nearly as bad. Screamy thugs recycling endless bullshit about the oppressive and destructive state of capitalism, and yet selling their records for profit-- where's the dignity in that?
Elvis Costello, more so than any other musician before or since, has managed to integrate the insight of personal music and the conviction of political music, while avoiding the self-indulgent pitfalls of both. To put it another way, Elvis Costello could sing a song about the oppressive and destructive state of his girlfriend and pull it off with wit and talent to spare.
With My Aim Is True, Costello immediately established himself as the world's foremost angry geek with something to prove. And while the songs on that album were absolutely stellar, Costello had yet to make his defining statement. Clover, who would later become the News and back up a lesser geek who never managed to prove much of anything, did a great job backing Costello's songs, but never really managed to sound like anything more than a backing band.
This, Elvis Costello's second album, marked the beginning of a long and illustrious collaboration with the Attractions, not to mention one of those glorious moments in which a musician discovers a sound that is all his own. While My Aim Is True was largely a guitar-centered album, the sonic core of This Year's Model consists almost entirely of drums, bass, and keyboards. As a result, it's not only a more complex and dynamic album, but also one that steers well clear of the retro guitar twang that marred the less interesting bits of his debut.
Indeed, songs like "Pump It Up" and "This Year's Girl" sound like they were essentially written from the rhythm section up. Pete Thomas' drumming is nothing short of perfect-- on these two songs in particular he keeps the beat deep and powerful, putting accents in all the right places without ever attempting to take the spotlight off the freak up front. With less rhythmically straightforward songs, such as the vaguely reggae-inflected "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," Thomas shifts accents faster than Miss Cleo, and with far more skill.
"(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" is by far the most angular tune to be found on This Year's Model. But at the other end of the spectrum sits "Little Triggers," a piano-driven pseudo-ballad that plays host to some of Costello's best wordplay. "Thinking all about those censored sequences/ Worrying about the consequences/ Waiting until I come to my senses/ Better put it all in present tenses," is characteristic of Costello's finest lyrics-- eloquently constructed and uniquely insightful without ever being trite or obvious.
A more controversial lyrical highlight comes with "Night Rally," a song that was left off of the original U.S. release of This Year's Model. Costello never shied away from using offensive and thought-provoking imagery in his songs, most notably references to Nazi Germany. Sounding something like a new wave funeral march, "Night Rally" sees Costello making a reference to "singing in the showers," a line that's both cleverly disturbing and vice versa.
"Night Rally" was intended to be the last song on This Year's Model, but the folks at Rhino decided to stick the single "Radio, Radio" at the end of the album itself, as was done on the original U.S. release. Given the great care Rhino took with both the remastering and packaging of This Year's Model, it seems odd that they would go and do something that acts contrary to the original idea of the record. But one can hardly bitch about the inclusion of that track, easily one of the glowing highlights of the man's entire career.
Rhino's expanded reissue also includes a second disc of bonus material, some of which is nearly as satisfying as the album itself. "Big Tears" is one of his finest unreleased tracks, and acoustic demos of "Big Boys" and "Greenshirt," both of which later appeared on Armed Forces, provide an interesting insight into the way Costello turned simple guitar tunes into fully formed new wave masterpieces.
These three songs, as well as many other tracks on the bonus CD, were all included as bonus tracks on the recent Rykodisc reissue of This Year's Model. On this reissue, though, Rhino has added a decent number of additional tracks, including alternate versions of "You Belong to Me," "Radio, Radio," "This Year's Girl," and "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea." None of these versions are nearly as good as those that appear on the original record, but every song on the bonus disc is cast in a sufficiently different light from its album counterpart to unquestionably warrant inclusion. Simply put, Rhino couldn't have done a much better job here.
And it's a good thing, too, since this album deserves nothing less than a flawless package. Perfectly balancing the raw energy of My Aim Is True with the more elegant pop songwriting that would come to characterize much of his later work, This Year's Model is not only Costello's best work, but one of the most distinctively brilliant albums ever to be released. For fans of rock music bursting with wit and character, it really just doesn't get any better than this.