Elvis Costello and the Attractions
This Year's Model
(Radar; US: May 1978; UK: 17 Mar 1978)
Mr. Costello’s Lennon/McCartney fixation culminates on the record’s ninth track, “Lip Service”. The twangy riff that opens the song is clearly Beatles-influenced, as is the textural acoustic guitar rhythm track, Bruce Thomas’ buoyant, melodic bass playing, and the two-part harmonies in the chorus. According to some sources, the opening line is “You left the water running”—what would be a direct quotation of the titular Otis Redding classic, and the cadence is certainly similar—but the lyrics for the song on Elvis Costello’s official website reveal that the line is, in fact, “You left the motor running”.
“Lip Service” is unusually unexplicit for Costello. Considering the author, it’s impossible to overlook the possibility of innuendo in the song’s title and chorus (once again, I shouldn’t have to elaborate), but it’s probably a stretch. Most of the lyrics seem to concern the narrator’s frustration and infatuation with a confusing and particularly haughty female (examples: “Are you really only going through the motions?”; “When did you become so choosy? / Don’t act like you’re above me, just look at your shoes”). By the chorus, he’s fed up: “Lip service, is all you’ll ever get from me!” Costello confesses, in one of his most ferocious vocal moments on the record. Presumably, the girl has rejected Elvis (what’s new?); he admits to having provided “lip service” which may in itself be a lie, something that the author is only saying to assuage his own disappointment. Both “Alison” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now” contain similar trenchant kiss-offs or “punchlines” (the scornful “My aim is true” at the end of the chorus in “Alison” and “I knew then what I know now / I never loved you anyhow” at the end of “I Hope You’re Happy Now”). This one’s a little different, though, as Costello laments “If you change your mind, you can send it in a letter to me” at the end of the chorus in “Lip Service”. This isn’t exactly sarcastic like “Alison”, or downright mean-spirited like “I Hope You’re Happy Now”—as a matter of fact, it’s so vulnerable and pitiable it’s hard to imagine it came from Costello. He’s genuinely holding out hope.
The simplicity of the music mirrors the straightforwardness of the lyrics. Somewhat bizarrely, Steve Nieve is completely absent from this track, with the exception of a sustained organ chord at the end of the song (which is a major six chord—- again, very (early) Beatles). The real star here could very well be Bruce Thomas and his trilling bass guitar—I frequently find myself humming the bassline to this song, which should say a lot about Thomas’ oft-overlooked melodic gifts. A live version of “Lip Service” performed as early as 1977 appears as a bonus track on the reissue of My Aim Is True, albeit at a much slower tempo. Footage of a particularly impassioned performance of the song on Spanish TV exists, and the song appears on both Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High, suggesting that at one point EC seemed to have a lot of confidence in the song. All in all, “Lip Service” is a comparatively tame power pop number that rounds out the otherwise threatening second side of This Year’s Model.