Back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s I went to many, many concerts. I was able to see most of my favorites: The Mission (UK), The Sisters Of Mercy, The Pogues, The Hooters, Crowded House, Public Image Ltd, The Cure… The list goes on and on, except for a select few. XTC? Nope, they stopped touring before I fell in love with their music (but I did meet them at Tower Records with my sister, Kathy, and friends Michelle and Ron). One of the few I regret never seeing is Elvis Costello. As big of a fan I am of his, I have never managed to see him live. Maybe some day.
My first Elvis Costello album was, of course, The Best of Elvis Costello that I either stole from my sister or I got from BMG record club. It is jam-packed with great songs, one of the CDs that I played enough to pretty much wear out. It wasn’t too much after I got that CD that Elvis came out with the album SPIKE, and the song Veronica. For those in the know: yes, I did sing that song to my wife when we first met; yes, she likes the song, even though she knows it’s titular character has Alzheimer’s Disease; yes, she can get sick of it.
After Spike came out they came out with a 4-disc box set of Elvis Costello called Girls, Girls, Girls. My parents got that for me for Christmas that year and I suddenly understood that Elvis Costello had waaaaaaay more great songs than the “Best of …” lead one to believe. It was also soon after that Elvis’ older albums would be rereleased on cd through Rykodisc so I stopped collecting the cassette tapes and waited. It was not a disappointment. I started with My Aim Is True and bought them all. So many of them would become favorites that I had a hard time choosing which would be the one I would review here.
My first thought was Spike because it was the first non-best of cd of his that I bought. But then I started thinking too much: Armed Forces was the first older cassette I bought and that was a favorite for a long time, but then This Year’s Model was the other cassette I bought and that one was just as good. Then I started thinking even more: Get Happy!, King of America, Blood & Chocolate, and Imperial Bedroom were all CDs that at one time I considered my favorite Elvis albums ever. It all kept coming back, though, to My Aim Is True. It was his first album and it was also my favorite EC album for a while. The choice was tough, but in the end it had to be My Aim Is True. Since we’re starting at the beginning, let’s take a look at his name. Declan McManus changed his name to Costello because it was his mother’s maiden name. To paraphrase Elton John, who inducted Elvis Costello and the Attractions into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, he changed his first name to Elvis because he was a cheaky bastard. I mean, he's. it wrong. Just look at the album cover. Those checks have letters in them. They spell ELVIS IS KING.
The dude had balls, he's not afraid to say what was on his mind. Which is how he got the Angry Young Man moniker. This album may have come out before he gathered The Attractions but it didn't suffer for it. Country-Rock band Clover played the role of backing band quite nicely. I don't know any Clover songs (although one of the members went on to be a cofounder of Toto) but they get the thumbs up from me for this album alone. This could be regarded as one of the best debut albums. At the very least it's the best new wave debut album.
Welcome To The Working Week – Did I mention he had balls? The first line of this opening track is: “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired”, in an unabashed reference to masturbation. Did I mention that Clover was a Country band? You can't tell here. The pace and rhythm adhere to punk methodology quite nicely in 1:23.
Miracle Man – Here we have that start of what would become a signature theme for young Elvis Costello. The jilted loser type, with a penchant for sarcasm. “I could tell you that I like your sensitivity but you know it's the way that you walk” is juxtaposed to lines like “why do you have to say that there's always someone who can do it better than I can”. Elvis gives and Elvis takes
No Dancing - Another example of the misfit anti-hero. Equally dissed and angry, being made a fool of, yet making everyone have to feel his pain.
Blame It On Cain – Anti-hero? Thy name is Elvis Costello. One of the other things that I like about this album, which is exemplified by this song in particular, is 50’s vibe rock’n’roll that Clover plays with. It's a nice homage.
Alison – As I mentioned, my first EC album was the Best of…. This is the first song off of that and it remains one of my favorite songs. The initial twang, the bluesy vibe, The completely singable words. This is Costello at his finest. Wait is this song hiding a stalker as it's POV character? Is he talking about killing an ex-? I think he is. We can take “my aim is true” a couple of ways here. He could be saying that he's good & honest about his intentions but he could also be talking about a weapon. Especially since it comes directly after saying that he wishes he stop her from talking, and wanting someone to put out the big light. Younger me thought he was talking about being good & honest. Current me leans towards the more sinister.
Sneaky Feelings – Again reminding me more of a 50’s rock song than a punk rock song.
(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes – This song came on in the car the other day. I was singing along when Jay, my 12 year old, says “This song is really weird.” He's not completely wrong. I've heard this song so many times the weirdness may have worn off on me. It's a damn great song, though.
Less Than Zero – I’ll admit, when I first heard this song and heard Mr Oswald, I was thinking about Kennedy’s assassination. What can I say, I'm American. It was such a common misconception that EC even wrote another version that made it about Lee Harvey Oswald (the Dallas version). The original is the superior version. I don't understand why this was left out of the Best of compilation. It's one of his best songs ever. Musically my favorite off the album, well done by Clover on this one.
Mystery Dance – This album is chock full of genius songs played at a fervent pace. This song packs a huge punch for 1:38. This is a great example of how his 50’s reverence gets mashed up with his words new wave ideals.
Pay It Back – Elvis, on his first album, shows he can write Punk, New Wave, Country, and oldies. From the start it’s clear that he's not a one trick pony. All this and he grew from there.
I'm Not Angry – The jilted Elvis. Maybe he's not angry, but he sure sounds like it. He's definitely bitter. Elvis is very good at writing biting, subtly vicious word attacks at the unfortunate women that find the need to dis our hero.
Waiting For The End Of The World – One thing that always strikes me about this song is the wording, and it is a trait of EC. His lyrics sometimes seem to go on past the point where it seems they belong, just beyond the spot they should have stopped, to where he's singing almost out of breath. This, my friends, is a good thing. It definitely makes for an interesting song.
Watching The Detectives – This album has a ton of great songs on it, and it's a debut. I think this song really was what made the world take notice, and for obvious reasons. It took me a long while to get that she's watching TV detectives, I had some hardened female P.I. scenario in my head for a long time. It’s not about that at all. The narrator’s woman just can't stop watching TV detectives and he's got to deal with that. Regardless, it was the song that put The cheeky bastard on the map. And we've all been reaping the benefits since.