This Year’s Model. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1978, Radar Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, ca. 1997. (Rykodisk)
IN A NUTSHELL: A record all the critics love – but don’t let that stop you from listening! It’s the first appearance by The Attractions, a wonderfully talented rhythm section, and they do not disappoint. Elvis spits out his cleverly crafted lyrics (mainly about his troubles of the heart) with disdain – and a bit of self-conscious humor – and never stops the party. I won’t tell you it’s awesome – I’m no authority, after all – I’ll just tell you I love it!
In 1974 I was in second grade and my teacher was Mrs. Miller. She was approaching retirement when I had her, which means she had been teaching second graders since before World War II. She was chubby and severe-looking, with gray hair pulled into a bun and little granny glasses perched on her nose, looking not unlike Calvin’s nemesis, Miss Wormwood, from Calvin & Hobbes. Sometime early in the school year she made a statement to the class that I knew to be incorrect. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know that I raised my hand and pointed out her error. She replied, “Do not correct me. I am the teacher, and the teacher is never wrong.” My little seven year old self fumed and thought: “Bullshit!”
For a long time I’ve had a bit of a problem with Authority Figures. It’s nothing that’s very radical. I’m not an Anarchist, I don’t have a manifesto. I’ve never been fired or reprimanded at a job because I couldn’t get along with my boss. I’ve never been thrown out of a sporting event for yelling at referees. I never got detention in school or arrested for mouthing off to a cop. I’m aware of how society works, faults and all, and I’m fortunate to be a member of a group for whom it is easiest to remain polite and smiling while I feign deference.
But I still don’t buy into all that “Authority” bullshit.
My questions regarding authority always boil down to these: “Who gave you Authority?” and “What is supposed to be encompassed within that Authority?” Assholes who abuse their authority generally don’t understand the correct answer to one of those two questions.
Let’s take the second question first: “What is supposed to be encompassed within that authority?” People who believe their authority allows them to act like a dick are some of my least favorite people. In 2001, I went to the Brookline, MA, building permit department to ask a question about renovating my garage. I waited twenty minutes to finally get to the front of the line. Then, the short, chubby building-permit guy, who wore a gaudy pinky ring and a hairdo from 1975, halted my question after 3 seconds by turning his back on me to turn to his secretary and ask, “Did I tell you I found another dead squirrel in my pool this morning?” He then began a five-minute conversation with her about wildlife and aquatics, while I waited patiently – sure that if I interrupted, he’d answer my question in the way that most negatively impacted me. It was a completely asshole move, and if I remembered that dick’s name I’d tell you right now. He knew he had some “authority,” and felt it allowed him to be a lousy human being to others. (And not to sound too superior, but the dude was a building-permit guy in a small town. It’s not like he was saving lives or acting heroically. The dick.) But his authority really wasn’t supposed to encompass assholishness.
The question of “Who gave you Authority?” is trickier. It may imply that as long as I get an answer that is accurate (i.e. “There’s a law in our town about building permits and how they’re attained;” “I was hired by the principal to be your second-grade teacher.”) I’ll be satisfied and accept the person’s role. However, there have been times I’ve had issues with those who’ve been given legitimate authority. For example, I was summoned for jury duty in San Francisco many years ago, and during the process of jury selection a question that was asked of every candidate was this: “Is there any reason you’d be unable to follow the judge’s instructions?” The jury was selected before I was ever questioned, so I never got a chance to answer: “If the judge instructs me to do something I think is inappropriate or incorrect, I won’t follow the instructions.” (Is that Contempt of Court? I probably have a lot of contempt for many U.S. courts – even the highest.)
That being said, in most cases I’ll initially extend extra benefit of the doubt to someone who’s been duly granted authority in some official way. However, I tend not to extend it to those who have “authority” for no other reason than they clicked on an Indeed.com link. For example, Music Critics.
According to my deep, deep research, including watching historical documentaries, arts criticism has been around since the time of Aristotle, Plato and ancient India – proving that humans have always gotten off on talking shit about each other. In its most serious and legitimate1 form, arts criticism can be an academic pursuit undertaken by curious researchers seeking answers to larger questions; or an intellectual pursuit by writers seeking to investigate and understand the arts and artists. I have no problem with these functions, as I’m probably not sophisticated or patient enough to unravel most of these writings, and I’m way past being interested in pretending to be interested.
AN ASIDE: I will, however, sometimes read the art reviews by the celebrated New Yorker writer Peter Scheldahl just so I can meditate over poetic prose that is, to me, as inscrutable as a foreign menu. For example, a review of a recent retrospective at The Guggenheim of the abstract artist Agnes Martin states: “The cumulative effect is that of intellectual and emotional repletion, concerning a woman who synthesized the essences of two world-changing movements—Abstract Expressionism and minimalism—and who, from a tortured life, beset by schizophrenia, managed to derive a philosophy, amounting almost to a gospel, of happiness.” To me, that’s a lot of blabberty-flabber-jabber to describe a blue square full of little black squares, but it sure sounds good. And I certainly don’t know enough to challenge his assertions.
However, from these high-minded pursuits by hyper-focused and, perhaps, hyper-intelligent minds it is a short and slippery slope to writing about arts in a manner that is pedantic, condescending and self-important. Or put more plainly – these critics can easily come off as assholes. They can be not unlike those hipster bullies I met 25 years ago in San Francisco, timid individuals shat upon throughout life who banded together to shit upon others over their culturo-artistic ideas. They can be like the record store gang in the film High Fidelity, extolling arts and artists from a position on high to other people, many of whom are eager to reflect some of that superiority onto friends and acquaintances. This desire to be an expert leads folks to, for example, assume that a record that is unlistenable must have been, based on a few words by some “authority,” misapprehended by themselves and the public at large, and so must, despite what their ears tell them, be, in fact, a work of genius2. Some folks even think rock critics of the past leveraged this blind obedience by some to perpetrate ingenious hoaxes.
Sometimes, as I’ve written before, the cause of the assholery is pure, unmitigated jealousy toward someone artistically more successful than the critic. Sometimes it may just be hidden biases, such as the critic Byron Coley, who states in the really cool, funny film Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, that the (largely unknown) band Half Japanese were better than The Beatles. I’m aware of my pro-Beatle bias, but I don’t know that Coley – who stated in an interview that he never liked The Beatles because girls liked them – is aware of his own biases. And while I have no problem with the artistic pursuits of a band like Half Japanese, I can’t really take Coley seriously when he states that the first time he heard HJ he recognized a “burst of genius unrivaled … since Coltrane …” Listen to that genius right here.
My issue with the statement “better than The Beatles3” isn’t that Coley believes it. After all, the reason there’s all kinds of music is because there’s all kinds of taste. My issue is that he didn’t state “I think” before the words. Instead, he stated it as if it’s a fact, as if liking The Beatles more than Half Japanese would be akin to believing that the Earth is flat. In reality, Half Japanese isn’t better than The Beatles, and The Beatles are not better than Half Japanese. The truth is some folks like one band better, a few billion more like the other band better. That’s it.
Critics are just people, after all, and will admit they get it wrong sometimes. And as people, they may simply have different tastes than me (and some other critics.) And I don’t deny there is a place for criticism, even in the modern world of free samples everywhere. But still, I tend to not trust music critics – even (especially?) the most-respected ones. I rarely know why they’re considered authorities; and wherever that authority comes from, I don’t believe it entitles anyone to say anything more than “This is what I think is good/bad …”
What do I do, then, when I find I really like a really highly critically acclaimed record?!
This isn’t the first critically-acclaimed record on my list. But Elvis Costello is definitely one of those artists who was a critical darling before he was a big star (at least in America), causing David Lee Roth, of Van Halen, to famously quip: “Of course the rock critics all love Elvis Costello. They all look like him!!” And this record, This Year’s Model, was particularly well-received, with practically every single music magazine of the day effusively gushing over it4. So I have to be careful: am I just buying into the critical hype of an artist? Has my judgement been clouded by my own desire to appear sophisticated to friends and family?
I’ve written before about my introduction to Elvis Costello. And the fact is that I’ve always liked him. He was a big part of early MTV, which I watched as close to round-the-clock as school/activities allowed. Songs like “Oliver’s Army,” “Every Day I Write the Book,” and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” were regularly shown, and I liked them all. At this time, in the early 80s, I was also a big fan of AOR radio, and Elvis songs were played there, as well. “Alison,” “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” “Watching the Detectives.” I liked all the songs I heard – yet I didn’t start diving into his albums until the late 90s.
This Year’s Model is Costello’s second album, but the first with The Attractions backing him5. And in my opinion, Elvis always sounds best when he’s backed by The Attractions: Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas (no relation) on bass, and Steve Nieve on keyboards. They play with a great energy, and they’re also technically really good. Right off the bat on this album, drummer Pete Thomas gets to shine on the opener “No Action.”
It starts with a vocals-only opening6, a technique Elvis used frequently, then the band bursts in in a clamor. Actually, everyone is playing simple chords and notes, except drummer Thomas, who is flailing away, giving the song great urgency. Costello writes catchy melodies, which is undoubtedly a big reason why I – who grew up on 70s AM radio pop – like his songs so much. The chorus features nice harmony vocals, and after 2 quick minutes, in which Elvis claims not to miss his ex, yet sounds unconvincing, the whole thing ends. It’s very compact, and features the clever wordplay for which Costello became famous: “Everytime I phone you/I just wanna put you down.” It’s a bracing opener, which serves to heighten the poppy bounce of the next song, “This Year’s Girl.”
This song is bassist Bruce Thomas’s chance to shine. He’s one of my favorite rock bassists for his inventive lines and his use of the entire neck. After a few measures of drums and guitar, at about 22 seconds, bassist Thomas ventures way up the neck – signaling how he’ll travel throughout the song. His bouncing bass line really carries the song. This song also has another catchy melody, and keyboardist Nieve fills in some cool sounds in the background, like at around 1:20. In the chorus there are nice harmony vocals, that Elvis supplies himself via double-tracking. (No one but EC is credited with vocals on the record.) The lyrics describe the fantasy created by pin-ups, the disconnect between the reality and the effect of them. At 3 minutes, bassist Thomas gets to play a little lead bass on the fadeout.
Elvis Costello and The Attractions are a high-energy band, and they keep This Year’s Model cranking along with the next song, a 60s-inspired, organ-driven “The Beat.” The melody isn’t as strong as some of the other Costello songs, and the lyrics are typical Elvis-freaked-out-by-women (which he tends to deliver with a tinge of self-conscious humor), but the performance of the rhythm section is nonpareil, especially Bruce Thomas’s bass in the slow section, after 2:10. He really gets to shine on the next cut, too, a track that’s become a favorite “Jock Jam,” featured at US sporting events to get the crowds, well, pumped up: “Pump It Up.”
The video captures perfectly the odd, twitchy persona that Elvis and his band brought to MTV fans of the early 80s. Ill-fitting suits, crooked teeth, herky-jerky movements … they didn’t look, or sound, like Triumph or .38 Special, or other AOR bands of the day. But “Pump It Up” is irresistible, with – once again – Bruce Thomas’s bass carrying the load7. Elvis has a few nifty bent chords in the beginning, and then on top of the ping-pong bass and Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drums he spits out lyrics that I once read were about masturbation, but that seem to me more of Elvis’s standard “what’s the deal with me and the ladies?” frustration. Keyboardist Nieve (who never played in a rock band, and didn’t listen to rock music, until he joined The Attractions at age 19) is the master of the little background fills that help drive a song. I like how the last verse modulates up a step, and “Jock Jam”-y as it may be, I still find it satisfying the way the song builds, then hangs on a note, before the tension is released with Costello’s shouted “Hey!”8
Those may be (without giving it much extra thought) my four favorite songs to kick off an album. (Then again, considering this is only #46, that’s probably not true. But I do love them!) But the band settles things down with the next song, the New Wave country of “Little Triggers,” featuring some of Costello’s best wordplay about another woman who done him wrong.
I typically find Elvis’s slower songs less interesting than his upbeat ones, but this song – with the rhythm section’s disdain for typical country swing, Nieve’s piano fills and Elvis’s expressive voice – is one that I enjoy. He also slows things down later on with “Night Rally,” a type of march about (I think) the unrecognized influence of pop culture. Costello has a number of different styles on the record, but they all have that New Wave influence. “Living In Paradise” is almost a calypso song, with more outstanding B. Thomas work. “You Belong to Me” sounds almost like a 60s Motown record, with a nifty guitar riff and ringing organ. “Hand In Hand” opens strangely, and features Elvis’s tremolo guitar and Nieve’s cool doodles, then turns into a 60s girl-group style pop song.
Another favorite of mine on the album is the driving word barrage and rhythmic gem “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.”
It opens with a drum fill that Pete Thomas admits he lifted from Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell’s performance on “Fire.9” This song really drives home the fact that The Attractions are simply a rhythm section: drums, bass, keys. Costello also plays mainly rhythm guitar, although in “Chelsea” he throws in a cool riff, but the band is basically Elvis singing to a rhythm section. Again, B. and P. shine (Bruce’s slide at the beginning of each chorus a particular favorite of mine!), but Elvis’s mush-mouthed, frantic delivery is what steals the show. The song’s about his disdain for London’s high-end fashion scene, in the Chelsea district, but includes a double meaning (as many of his lyrics do), as England also has the famous Chelsea Asylum10.
The Attractions make every song energetic, whether it’s the frantic, borderline falling-apart “Lipstick Vogue” (including more clever lyrics about a woman who done him wrong) or the 60s-inspired pop masterpiece, “Lip Service.”
I like the structure of this song, the chord change in the pre-chorus (“Everybody is going through the motions”) and the riff the bass and guitar play in the chorus. Once again, Elvis is lamenting his love life. It’s a cool-sounding, sing-along song.
Every now and then I have to admit that someone in authority is correct. My mom was right: I should’ve worn a hat. That professor was right: I should’ve gone to the recitation. And while I still question the “authority” of music critics, I also have to agree that This Year’s Model is an incredible work. It’s The Attractions’ first and they play like they really want to keep the job. It’s Elvis at his fiery best. It’s a lot of what I look for in a record, even if I might not admit it to you if you’re a music critic!
“This Year’s Girl”
“Pump It Up”
“You Belong To Me”
“Hand In Hand”
“(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”
“Living In Paradise”