If “No Action” is one of Elvis Costello’s best album openers, “This Year’s Girl” is certainly one of his cleverest choices for a second cut. The second song’s role on an album is less obvious than the first’s, but no less important. A good second track ought to provide the listener with an opportunity to breathe, to “cool down”, and being one of the mellower, most fluid songs on the album, “This Year’s Girl”‘s sequential placement is ideal, especially after its chaotic predecessor.
Costello has described this song as an “answer” to the Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl”, though admits his words are “much less contemptuous”. It’s easy to hear the Stones’ influence, though: Costello sings with a slightly bluesy inflection here and musically it wouldn’t have been too out of place on a record like Aftermath. But leave it to Costello to outshine his exemplars (lyrically, anyway). Like its template, “This Year’s Girl” concerns a widely sought-after and ultimately unattainable Ms., but it isn’t explicitly misogynistic like the one-dimensional-by-comparison “Stupid Girl” — as a matter of fact, it contains some of the album’s most inscrutable wordplay. If anything, its derision is leveled more at the hopeless hoards of adulators than their object of desire.
The isolated, syncopated drum beat that kicks off the song is strongly reminiscent of Ringo Starr’s playing in both the Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, which only enhance its mid-’60s flavor. The song begins with just drums, then the instruments proceed to pile on top of one another, beginning with the engine-like electric guitar (supposedly a Gretsch Country Gentleman) that plays the main riff, followed by the bass and shakers which appear simultaneously, and concluding with the keyboard’s entrance. This is the first moment on the record where we really get a glimpse of Bruce Thomas’ brilliant bass-playing. His busy, melodic bass work, often compared to Paul McCartney’s during the Beatles’ Revolver period, is an integral aspect of the Attractions’ sound, and the record would surely be less memorable without it. “This Year’s Girl” is also the first track where Steve Nieve’s “plastic” organ marches to the forefront, as it mainly occupies an auxiliary position in “No Action”. “See her picture in a thousand places / ‘Cause she’s this year’s girl / You think you all own little pieces / Of this year’s girl” — you can practically hear the words scrape against Costello’s scornful grin as they leave his mouth. Everyone cherishes and aggrandizes the little pieces of this year’s girl they possess.
The song also contains a dizzying amount of effortless-sounding key changes, tricks the young and absorbent songwriter likely picked up from the book of McCartney. The one instance where a key change like this does sound dramatic is when the bridge transitions back into the verse, an alternation signaled by the off-kilter vocal melody (“She’s forgotten much more than she’s lost”). Costello prolongs the final chorus — “Those disco synthesizers / Those daily tranquilizers / The body-building prizes / Those bedroom alibis” and then sings the line “All this, but no surprises for this year’s girl” three times before the key changes again, Elvis screams (!) and the song fades out somewhat irresolutely. During the fadeout (Bruce) Thomas and Nieve participate in some instrumental fooling around, and a mere instant before silence, Pete Thomas starts playing something drastically different on the drums.
The premier live version of “This Year’s Girl”, again, appears on Live at Hollywood High, where during the drum introduction Elvis has some call-and-response fun with the audience (“Are they any girls here tonight?” Costello inquires; when the audience reaction is less than satisfactory he says “Well I think me and the fellas better go home then, if there are no girls here . . .”, to which the crowd responds wildly). Wedged in between the deranged “No Action” and the jagged “The Beat” on This Year’s Model, the relatively conservative “This Year’s Girl” works flawlessly as a second track. But much greater things are yet to come.