In 1978, the always-clever Elvis Costello showed his head-turning debut album was no fluke, coming back just a year later with his explosive second album, This Year’s Model. Not only did it announce Costello as an artist with staying power, but it was also his first album with his steady band, the Attractions, who helped propel him on album after rocking album for years.
Now, 43 years later, Costello has surprised fans again by re-mixing the master tapes from This Year’s Model but stripping away his vocals and substituting in Spanish lyrics sung by Latin American rockers. The unlikely project is a series of revelations for long-time listeners, starting with how powerful and talented the Attractions were as a band.
The project began after Costello redid the title song of “This Year’s Model” at the request of writer-producer David Chase for the second season on HBO of The Deuce. Vocals by Natalie Bergman of Wild Belle were added, and it got Costello thinking about redoing the album’s masters, and he has said the idea of doing it in a new language came to him in a dream. Soon, he was working with Argentine producer Sebastian Krys to rework the album, recruiting singers and songwriters to adapt Costello’s inimitable wordplay where they could, keeping to the feeling and themes of the original songs.
The 16 tracks run through the UK version of the original album and add a few songs that Costello recorded around the same time. That includes “Radio, Radio”, which was added to the US version and became infamous when he launched into it unannounced on Saturday Night Live and was banned (albeit temporarily) from the show.
Here, “Radio, Radio” is cleverly rewritten for the occasion by veteran Argentine singer-songwriter Fito Paez, who pokes fun at the younger generation. “I don’t know what music turns you on,” he sings. “I’ll go back to Elvis Costello on my radio.” The new lyrics playfully pay homage to “This Year’s Model” and end with Paez screaming: “Hey, I want to hear this song on the fucking radio, man!”
Fans accustomed to the US version may not know the anthemic “Night Rally” about the dangers of nationalism, with haunting references to Nazi Germany. Here the song is handled by Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, whose softer voice contrasts with some of the rockers elsewhere on the album, but he sings of “La Turba” or a mob.
One striking reversal is that several of the songs are sung by women, mainly since so many of Costello’s early songs were of the “she done me wrong” variety. Here, “The Year’s Model”, about a vacuous beauty, is sung by the Chilean pop singer Camila Gallardo, or Cami. In the video for the song, the model-thin Cami sits in a photo studio on a stool next to an old Victrola, without singing, just flipping cards with some of the words on them like Bob Dylan did in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Against the big galumphing drum beat, with her raspy vocals, she changes the song title to “La Chica de Hoy”, or “Today’s Girl”. She also makes the object of the song more sympathetic, someone who is in the spotlight but who is ultimately and sadly bored with her life. “There are no surprises for today’s girl.”
Throughout the album, Costello’s voice slips into the mix like a ghost, sometimes accompanying, sometimes dueling, with the new lead vocalists, always returning the song to its punk-pop snarling roots.
What does get lost is Costello’s brilliantly cynical wordplay. On “Pump It Up”, he spits out: “She’s been a bad girl / She’s like a chemical / Though you try to stop it / She’s like a narcotic / You want to talk to her / You want to torture her / All the things you bought for her / Could not give her temperature.” In the Spanish version, sung by Colombia superstar Juanes, the equivalent verse is close but not as cutting. “Tobacco aroma, chemical seasoning / You try to say ‘stop’/ Are you a narcotic? / Makes you hallucinate, laugh and fly / You can lose it all when this starts to burn.”
With Costello’s snarling vocals and razor-sharp wit dispatched, fans can refocus on what an incredibly tight and powerful band the Attractions were in 1978, particularly the pounding drums of Pete Thomas. Who is this album for? Costello fans who don’t know Spanish may still enjoy hearing these old favorites with new singers and lyrics, and Latinx newbies might find this a great entry point for Costello’s catalog. You have to give all involved credit—the album is still as exciting and fun as ever and yet another middle finger to anyone who expected Elvis Costello to do what he’s supposed to do.