While Costello hasn’t typically been known to be the type of artist who employs studio sortilege (especially at this early point of his career, when he embraced punk rock terseness more than anything else) the “backwards tape” introduction to “Hand in Hand” marks the first of a whole two instances where he does such a thing on This Year’s Model (the second being the cacophonous outro to “Night Rally”). The hypnotic fade-in (contrived guitar feedback presumably, it sounds an awful lot like the beginning of “It’s All Too Much” by the Beatles — Costello’s Fab Four pillaging doesn’t ever let up!) seems less random in the original context of the vinyl record, as “Hand In Hand” is the first track on the second side of the album.
“Hand in Hand” is overall reminiscent of Merseybeat, without a doubt one of Costello’s major touchstones for Model and beyond. The relatively tame vocal performance and buoyant melody offer a sharp contrast to the words, which are, as the critic Dermot Stokes described best in his early review of the record, “relationship warfare” (it’s worth pointing out that the premise is actually pretty similar to “Two Little Hitlers'” off the following record, sans magniloquent European history metaphors). “No, don’t ask me to apologize / I won’t ask you to forgive me / If I’m gonna go down / You’re gonna come with me” express the stationary state of the relationship concerned; both Costello and his significant other are too mulish — too unreasonable — to compromise, resulting in the dissolution of their partnership. Elvis is, of course, pointing the finger (“You say ‘Why don’t you be a man about it?’ / Like they do in the grown-up movies / But when it comes to the other way around / You say you just wanna use me”), but anybody with even a basic understanding of the structure to a relationship (and Costello) knows that both little Hitlers are likely responsible for this outcome.
Costello changes his tone in the song’s “B” section, singing with a deliberate sharpness on the lines “why don’t you be a mean about it?”, perhaps indicating that it’s someone else who’s talking. Pete Thomas plays a Motown-esque drum beat for the first eight bars of the B section (almost identical to the beat in “No Dancing” off My Aim Is True, as it were), but switches to a more traditional “rock” beat once Steve Nieve’s twinkling keyboard enters. The “hand in hand!” — sung in two-part harmony — that portends the return to the A section (which is the chorus, for all practical purposes) is so Beatles it’s almost eerie — if you close your eyes tight enough, you could convince yourself Paul and John singing the line instead of a double-tracked Costello (which it is in reality). The two-section nature of the song give it a “The Song That Never Ends” feel, and you can imagine it certainly doesn’t — the “hand in hand!” refrain repeats as the song fade-outs (the repetition becomes irritating almost immediately before the song fades out completely).
Curiously, “Hand in Hand” appears on neither of Costello’s officially-released live albums from this period. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of being too elaborate to be pulled off live effectively (as Costello did perform the song on subsequent tours in the ’80s), and it’s currently a part of the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” set, as a (brilliantly appropriate) mash-up with the Beatles “And Your Bird Can Sing”. So perhaps Costello didn’t think too highly of the song upon its release? Regardless, “Hand In Hand” is one of Costello’s underrated pop gems. Lyrically, its confessional and linear nature is singular among Elvis’ catalog.