Sunday, January 27, 2013

Class of '78: "My Aim Is True," Elvis Costello

Take a close look at that cover photo - does that look like the face of a man who, more than 30 years later, would host the likes of Tony Bennett and President Bill Clinton on a television program where they talked about (and sang) music?

"My Aim Is True" is rightly considered to be one of the greatest debut albums in the history of rock and roll.  It's as if this version of Elvis left the musical womb fully formed, ready and raring to go.  And even though The Divine Mr. C would up the ante less than a year later with the remarkable "This Year's Model," an album featuring a tougher sound provided by his own band (The Attractions; on the debut, the featured band was a Bay Area group called Clover), "My Aim Is True" is a great album in its own right.

Like many other albums of that era, I first learned about "My Aim Is True" from reading a Greil Marcus review in Rolling Stone.  I don't think I have a copy of the review in my collection, but I remember it being a "dual review," of both Costello's record and the new Randy Newman album, "Little Criminals."  Marcus saw similarities between the two, although he found the Newman record disappointing, and the Costello exciting, even groundbreaking.  Looking back more than 35 years later, you can see why Marcus was tempted to make the comparison, although Elvis' early records would eventually stray far from Newman territory.

For the most part, it is the music on an album that first grabs me, as opposed to the lyrics.  But Costello is an amazing lyricist, and it was hard not to pay immediate attention to gems like these:

"Welcome to the working week, Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you..."
- "Welcome to the Working Week"

"Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say..."
- "Alison"

"Oh, I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused."
- "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes"

"Well I remember when the lights went out and I was trying to make it look like it was never in doubt/She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew, so both of us were willing but we didn't know how to to do it."
- "Mystery Dance"

"Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay, it only took my little fingers to blow you away."
- "Watching the Detectives"

Along with a handful of other artists, Elvis Costello helped to usher in an era of music that, no matter what you thought about it at the time, definitely gave the old rock 'n roll verities (as Robert Christgau would call them) a shot in the arm.   Listening to the album today, it evokes that time, but at the same time feels timeless - if it came out today, it would be hailed as a great work, which it is.

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