Leaving behind psychedelic prog for nervy New Wave, the latest Between the Grooves series is a track-by-track deconstruction of Elvis Costello's malicious 1978 masterpiece. First up is the frenetic "No Action", Costello's best album opener and a great way of introducing his backing band the Attractions to the world.
Discovering Elvis Costello was probably the sole highlight of my strange and turbulent sophomore year of high school (it probably would have been runner-up, had I kissed a girl). Mine is by all means an ordinary account, so I'll try not to rattle on about it for too long (the "anecdotal intro" is a pretty hackneyed device, after all). But I will say this: it sucked. At that age, you experience the physical, mental, and societal disadvantages of both the "adult" and "kid" worlds yet the benefits of neither. It's a wonder the majority make it through unscathed.
I have Costello to thank. I started with his 1977 debut LP My Aim Is True, and worked up in chronological order from there (excepting less significant records that I wouldn't -- and couldn't -- absorb until awhile later, like Goodbye Cruel World and King of America). Initially, the instantly indelible My Aim Is True and Get Happy!! were my favorites, but over time I found myself "spinning" This Year's Model most often. Its impetuousness appealed in some way to my own adolescent, writhing soul, and the lyrics -- although I hadn't yet sat down to analyze them -- struck me in a special, specific way.
As I got older and ventured further into record store recesses and the seediest of Internet penetralia attempting to satisfy what I would discover is a hopelessly insatiable appetite for new music, I became somewhat estranged from Elvis, and many of the other artists who left those early imprints on my perspicacious tastes. But I still bumped This Year's Model constantly. It felt compatible with whatever else I was listening to at the time, which perhaps is testament to its inexplicable perfection. It helped me classify my girl troubles. Regardless of what precisely they were, it ran the gamut, accommodating remote, self-indulgent romantic aggrandizement ("This Year's Girl", "Little Triggers", "You Belong To Me") and genuine relationship problems ("No Action", "Lipstick Vogue", "Living In Paradise") equally well. No matter what flavor of romance-related shit I happened to be trudging through, I could always rely on This Year's Model's mollifying sympathies. I have never felt so connected to a piece of work that has made me feel so disconnected from my own penis.
Elvis Costello has yet to match the venomous lucidity of This Year's Model, and at this point, it's unlikely he ever will (although he comes awfully close to reaching the same precipice on select moments of 1986's Blood & Chocolate and 1989's Spike). You'd be hard-pressed to find any rock record -- "classic", "punk", or otherwise -- that has it beat in that sense. From the snarling vocal pickup that kicks off the album with "No Action", all the way through to the call-to-arms, anti-establishment closer "Radio, Radio", Elvis retains a raw, unparalleled frustration directed at virtually everything worth writing songs about: girls who have slighted him, boys who have stolen girls from him, the commercialization of radio broadcasting, etc. Mostly girls, though.
In addition to it indisputably being Costello's most consistent collection of songs, it, significantly, is the album that best captures the Attractions -- one of rock 'n' roll's best backing bands in their own right -- the way they were meant to be heard. On his debut, My Aim Is True (which technically a different backing band named "Clover" who would go on to become "The News" -- yes, that The News -- performed on), some of the more acerbic statements ("(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes", "I'm Not Angry") were marred by desolate production values and were likely perceived as tamer than they essentially were. Similarly, the lush production on Armed Forces, the followup to This Year's Model, compresses some of the band's most brutal performances and Elvis' nastiest vocal deliveries. The foundation for This Year's Model are the propulsive trio of drums, bass, and Steve Nieve's frequently-chafing keyboards, with the guitar being far more supplementary and textural (occasionally, it's downright inaudible) than it is those other two Costello LPs. This incredibly percussive sonic vanguard creates an urgency that best suits Elvis' frenetic compositions from this period of his career.
All in all, This Year's Model isn't quite the mainline of callow, unbridled enthusiasm that My Aim Is True was, yet it's still a ways off from the faux-symphonic bombast and wandering wordplay that started surfacing on Armed Forces but wouldn't dominate until Costello's self-flaunted masterpiece Imperial Bedroom. Consider this record the perfect compromise. It's certainly Elvis Costello's most live-sounding, most punk, and most honest record of his dauntingly expansive career.
Let's dig in then, shall we?
"I don't wanna kiss you / I don't wanna touch" . . .
. . . Costello sings in a vicious whisper, unaccompanied, at the top of "No Action", the first song on This Year's Model. Sequencing is clearly something Costello approaches deliberately, as this is the second in a series of three consecutive ingenious opening tracks, beginning with "Welcome to the Working Week" off my Aim Is True and concluding with "Accidents Will Happen" off Armed Forces (which contains the brilliant opening line "Oh, I just don't know where to begin"). "No Action" would have them both beat, though. As a solid pop songwriter, Costello doesn't really get much better -- or bitter -- than this. After an ambitious two measures of silence, with the exception of Costello's acerbic, nearly-spoken kiss off, the Attractions -- who are Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas on bass (no relation), and Steve Nieve on keys -- excitedly make their debut entrance.
Elvis follows up the opening line up with "I don't wanna see you / 'Cause I don't miss you . .. that much". It's an expression of apprehension over doing any "thing" with a girl the singer doesn't really have any feelings for anymore. "When I hold you like I hold that bakelite / In my hand / There's no action" is one of Costello's most misinterpreted -- and pedantic -- analogies: he's comparing the unnatural feeling of holding his girlfriend to the quite-literally synthetic sensation of holding a plastic telephone -- neither yielding any "action, emotional or physical. Elvis harmonizes with himself on the word "action" in a Beatlesque fashion, while a separate vocal track sings a contrapuntal backup, the words "No, no, no, there's no action" effectively creating an overpowering wash of vocals while the Attractions wisely play completely straight underneath.
At the beginning of the second verse, another character is introduced -- a second man in Elvis' place, which only further exacerbates our hero's already complex ambivalences. "He's got the keys to the car / They are the keys to the kingdom / He's got everything you need / It's a shame that he didn't bring them" remain some of Costello's most malicious jabs. At this point in the song, the band sounds like it's going to shoot off the rails at any second. There are dramatic guitar stabs on the first beat of every measure, and Steve Nieve enters with a gorgeous keyboard line. Meanwhile, Pete Thomas seems be concentrating solely on his own drumming, and the band barely avoids derailment here. Curiously, Bruce Thomas is unusually subdued here, playing mostly single notes, maybe due to a realization that busy bass-work would have pushed the song over the edge. The second pre-chorus deceptively launches into the middle eight instead of the chorus. The bridge is actually more like an extension of the pre-chorus, mirroring the singer's own persistence. "If I'm inserting my coin I'm doing just fine / All the things in my head start hurting my mind", the last line of the "real" pre-chorus, could be a double-entendre. "When I think about the way things used to be / Knowing you're with him is driving me crazy / Sometimes I phone you when I know you're not lonely / But I always disconnect just in time" forecasts the the rest of the album's possessive and neurotic climate. Ruminating over a girlfriend's sexual exchanges with people other than himself is one of Costello's "favorite" themes, one he began exploring on his debut with "I'm Not Angry" and culminate with Blood & Chocolate's asphyxiating epic "I Want You" -- but these neuroses are most elegantly and digestibly articulated on This Year's Model.
After a reprise of the chorus, the song ends on the V chord without properly resolving, and after only a moment of cessation Pete Thomas unexpectedly launches into more drum fills, perhaps anticipating a post-song "grind" that the other members weren't feeling once it came their turn to track.
During live performances of "No Action", the band would omit the vocal pickup and tack-on a guitar intro. The premiere live performance appears on Live at Hollywood High, in which Steve Nieve plays a likely satirical (but incredible nonetheless) keyboard line strongly reminiscent of Pachelbel's Canon during the song's final chorus. A much slower, blown-out prototype that was included on the Rhino reissue of My Aim Is True suggests that the song had been on the back burner for some time and could have even been a candidate for inclusion on Costello's first LP (a live performance of the song preceding This Year's Model by months also appears on the reissue). But it thoroughly belongs on This Year's Model, both thematically and musically. It's Elvis' best opener, and a great way of introducing the Attractions to the world.