Counterbalance No. 79: Elvis Costello’s ‘This Year’s Model’

Elvis Costello & the Attractions
This Year's Model

Mendelsohn: I don’t have any history with Elvis Costello, Klinger. I’m not going to ply you with excuses—what it comes down to is I’m lazy and unless I have a reason to listen to a certain artist, I normally do my best to ignore them. Well, thanks to our foray into the Great List, I now have a reason to listen to Costello. And I’ve been listening to This Year’s Model, over and over and over again, mostly because that’s what is required of me. But I’ve also left it on repeat because all of those sweet, sweet 35 minutes of pop-driven blasts of rock and roll are now running in a non-stop loop through my grey matter. This entire album is just one big hook, which is impressive. But I also think that this record is hitting me right because after the last few records we’ve talked about, This Year’s Model is simple, refreshing, and still surprisingly modern. I imagine you are going to tell me that you’ve been a Costello fan since before he was an Elvis, so tell me, does it still hold up?

Klinger: Oh, good lord does it ever hold up. You know, I knew we’d hit an Elvis Costello album at some point in the top 100 (although I’m surprised it took us this long), but I think This Year’s Model came in first for the same reason Rick Santorum somehow ended up a Republican presidential front-runner for a while there—luck of the draw. One could make a case for just about any of Costello’s first five LPs: the more traditional-sounding My Aim Is True, the lusher Armed Forces, the soul-derived Get Happy, or Trust, which to my ears boils the others down into one overarching statement of purpose. It’s absolutely astonishing to me that Costello was able to achieve this sustained level of output in the span of just three and a half years.

But it turns out the Great List favors This Year’s Model, Costello’s second LP and the first to feature the Attractions, and I can certainly see how that happened. Razor sharp slices of neo-garage rock, fueled on amphetamine and Aftermath, quick-witted and tight—and an object lesson that the New Wave could compete on the old school’s field.

And yes, I have been listening to Elvis Costello since I was a freshman in high school. I had an older friend who would play EC albums while a bunch of us played Dungeons and Dragons. It turns out I was way more into the music than I was rolling the 20-sided die, and I think I’m pretty sure they left me behind to get slain by a mage or something—I wasn’t paying a lot of attention. Come to think of it though, between the D&D and Costello’s sexual neuroses, it’s no surprise I didn’t date much.

Mendelsohn: Well, that is enlightening. I never pictured you as a dice jockey. Socially inept band nerd? Sure. But you seem far too grounded to get lost in the whims of fantasy. I was socially inept as well, but I didn’t have any excuses, and as you pointed out, Costello probably wouldn’t have done much to help me. Then again, the goth rock I was listening to when I was that age wasn’t helping much either.

Anyway. I like this album, which is a bit of a double-edged sword, because now I have to go listen to more Costello, whereas if I hadn’t liked it, I could have just gone on not caring. Ah, the cool embrace of apathy. The thing I find a bit confusing is that, while I knew who Costello was, I never really came across too many bands that listed him as one of their major touchstones. I would think that Costello’s winning formula would have been ripped-off wholesale over and over again. Am I just not listening to the right music? Or has influence always been there and I haven’t noticed?

Klinger: Well, I think Costello’s influence has pervaded the entire indie/alt/non-mainstream corner of the industry. But it’s more to do with his overall attitude and approach—the willful outsider dedicated to celebrating what’s admirable among his predecessors even as he holds them accountable for their excesses. His actual songwriting might be too rapid-fire wordy to emulate effectively, and the Attractions are really just too stinkin’ good—as individual musicians and as a unit—for anyone to rip off with any accuracy.

That’s been my takeaway throughout this latest This Year’s Model binge—the Attractions were quite simply one of the best backing groups in the history of rock. Nowhere is that more clear than on “Lipstick Vogue”, a runaway train of a song built on Bruce Thomas’ propulsive bass part, which rumbles along underneath the song but still manages to achieve a Paul McCartney-esque harmonic quality. Drummer Pete Thomas plays like a marginally more contained Keith Moon, and Steve Nieve’s keyboard add icy flourishes to Costello’s romantic paranoia. By the time the song is over, you’re pretty well drained—and it’s only been three and a half minutes.

Any songs jump out like that for you, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Most of the album jumps out at me like that. If you want me to get specific, I’d point to “The Beat” and those great, New Wave synth stabs that set the tone or poppy jumper of “Living in Paradise” and the irreverent organ that pushes the song in tandem with Thomas’ rolling bass. I even love the more traditional “Hand in Hand” and “Little Triggers”, but in comparing those songs to the rest of the album I start to think that the real star of this record is Nieve’s keyboard—not to ignore rest of the Attractions, they deserve every word of praise—but without Nieve’s organ I don’t think this album is nearly half as good. And it’s not that Nieve’s keyboard work is overpowering, but it injects character into what may otherwise have been upbeat but unimaginative romp through 35 minutes of rock. The songs that really stand out, the ones that get stuck in my head, are always the one with a strong keyboard presence. I like “No Action” but the album doesn’t really take off until “This Year’s Girl”, and I think that is due exclusively to Nieve and his organ. So I guess the next logical question would be — without the Attractions, would we be having this conversation about Costello? Or did I just trip into some “chicken before the egg” rock and roll conundrum?

Klinger: Well, first of all I have to disagree that the power of this album lies solely in Steve Nieve’s organ. (Man, there’s really no classy way to say that is there?) I still have to give it up for Bruce Thomas’ bass playing, which practically a lead instrument in places and still manages to anchor the songs with memorable riffs when the song calls for it. Look no further than “Pump It Up” for evidence there. Plus even Costello himself—who has a decidedly strained relationship with Thomas—credits the bassist with transforming “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” from a garagey three-chord spawn of “I Can’t Explain” into a reggae-infused tour de force. Hearing Costello’s vocals bob and weave with that bassline has been a high point of the past week for me.

But back to your question. As much as the Attractions bring to the proceedings, this is still Costello’s show. It’s his nervous energy that drives the action, and it’s his way with a lyric that sets the tone for the album. In a lot of ways, Costello set the music world on its ear right from the start. Punk may have provided the energy and the near-permanent scowl, but Costello’s songwriting was always infused with a love for the ’60s music that first inspired him. You hear that in a song like “You Belong to Me”, which is obviously based on the Rolling Stones’ “It’s All Over Now”. You hear it in “Little Triggers”, which offers a hint of the soul balladry that he’d have a go at around the time of Get Happy just a couple years later. Throw in his own special blend of neurotic/erotic affectations (it only seems like half the songs on This Year’s Model are about masturbation) and you have a truly distinct voice in the rock canon.

The noted philosopher David Lee Roth has been quoted as saying that rock critics love Elvis Costello because rock critics look like Elvis Costello. I’m not saying he was wrong (heaven forbid), but I think the real appeal goes deeper than that. The borderline Smeagol-esque public persona he established at the time was completely at odds with what people expected from a rock musician, and in the process he brought a lot of people closer to the nervous, edgy little person that lives somewhere inside each of us.