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. By all means, mine is 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 physical, mental, and societal disadvantages of 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 I found myself “spinning” This Year’s Model most often over time. 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 a 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 body.
Image by Ilya Deryabin from Pixabay
Elvis Costello has yet to match the venomous lucidity of This Year’s Model. 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’s 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 is 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?
1. “No Action”
“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” from 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, except for 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 overdoing 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 — the 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 to 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 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 to 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.
2. “This Year’s Girl”
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.” 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.
3. “The Beat”
“The Beat”, along with “Pump It Up”, is the most self-consciously “New Wave” — and resultantly, timeworn — song on This Year’s Model. The vocal melody isn’t quite up to Costello’s standards, and every one of his Attractions are unusually restrained on this cut. The song shifts back and forth between the minor-key chorus and major-key verses, and its lack of catchiness or much in terms of structural variety render it somewhat monotonous.
But it doesn’t matter too much, because nearly all of “The Beat’s” magic lies in its glorious, impressionistic lyrics; everything else seems like sort of an afterthought. Costello’s questionable attitude towards women and relationships that has come to characterize this early part of his career is brusquely summarized in a single line of this song: “I don’t wanna be a lover / I just wanna be your victim”. At the time, this specific lyric earned him a slew of idolators and a degree of notoriety in the music press, and it’s easy to see why. At its best, it’s a mantra for countless like-minded masochists whose pathological self-loathing drive them into toxic relationships (and at its worse it’s cheap and sensationalist).
But let’s start from the beginning. As it’s been stated elsewhere, the song’s opening line “We’re all going on a summer holiday” is directly borrowed from the Shadows song “Summer Holiday”, and that the following line “Vigilantes coming out to follow me” is most likely a snide subversion of Cliff Richard’s wholesome reputation (as well as an implication of Costello’s own paranoia). The other individual in the song appears to be somebody who the narrator is afraid (or unable) to enter into a relationship with — it’s a desire so intense that it enshrouds the two potential lovers, it’s clear that the appetite is reciprocated by the addressee, but for whatever inexplicable reason Elvis is incapable of making any sort of move. His disguise of impassivity only ends up further repelling the girl he’s secretly (very) interested in (“Well, if you only knew the things you do to me / I’d do anything to confuse the enemy / There’s only one thing wrong with you befriending me / Take it easy, I think you’re bending me”).
The “See your friends . . .” section of the chorus is an obvious quotation, both lyrically and melodically, of the Kinks’ song “See My Friends”. Costello constantly attempts to justify his fear of making a move to himself and his object of desire by pointing to their friends’ dysfunctional and profitless relationships (“See your friends in the state they’re in / See your friends getting under their skin / See your friends getting taken in”, and the second time: “See your friends walking down the street / See your friends never quite complete / See your friends getting under their feet”).
Costello’s self-pity reaches an uncomfortable apogee during the final verse, where he admits to being an unsatisfactory lover, anyway: the lines “Oh, I don’t want to disease you / But I’m not good with machinery / Oh, I don’t wanna freeze you” are a reference to contraception and represent the narrator’s quagmire on a microcosmic level. “Stop looking at the scenery / I keep thinking about your mother” could again be interpreted a reference to Costello’s sexual ineptness and neuroses or his inability to maintain his crush’s attention outside of the bedroom, and consequent frustration (perhaps he imagines he’s talking to her mother so he doesn’t get nervous during conversation, or perhaps he imagines he’s making love to her mother instead of her so the sex lasts longer). In the depressing final line of the last verse (“Did you think you were the only one waiting for a call?”), Costello acknowledges the mutual attraction and his fear of being the first one to do anything about it. There’s never closure of any variety, and Costello misses his window of opportunity. When Costello “sees her friends” in public now, they slight him (“See your friends treat me like a stranger”).
Frantic live versions of “The Beat” appear on both of Costello’s live albums from this period, Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High. Both versions are faster than the studio recording (which is per usual with Elvis) but are otherwise faithful. On the first few spins, it’s easy to underestimate “The Beat”. Musically, it’s sort of unmemorable. But an analysis of the lyrics reveal a portrait of Costello at his most vulnerable and neurotic, as a grown adult incapable of effectively talking to the girls he likes.
4. “Pump It Up”
“Pump It Up” is one of the most outdated songs on This Year’s Model. It’s also the biggest hit off the record (in America anyway, due to “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’s” indefensible omission from the original US pressings, which we’ll get to in a bit), and is the song many casual listeners single-handedly associate with “early (New Wave) Costello” (although, as most hardcore adherents would have them know, there are far better and perhaps more representative songs than “Pump It Up” from this part of Elvis’ career).
But the song thrives in the LP context of This Year’s Model most of all. The majority of its lyrics could effortlessly be interpreted as allusions to masturbation and male sexual frustration, and its coupling with the equally frustrated (and suggestive) “The Beat” enhances both songs’ impact. And despite being overplayed and stylistically somewhat confined to its time, it’s an essential piece of the larger puzzle, at the very least serving as an arch between the lyrically-effusive “The Beat” and melodramatic “Little Triggers”, a transition that otherwise wouldn’t be as fluid.
Bruce and Pete Thomas’ contributions are in no small part responsible for making the song iconic — the drums and bass intro is arguably the cut’s most “classic” and unmistakable section. After a little over a single measure of just bass and drums, Costello enters with swanky guitar embellishments on odd beats (that foreshadow the song’s general swankiness). There’s a drum build-up, the guitar and bass play a chromatic ascending figure, and the song blossoms into the propulsive verse. The guitar and keyboard harmonize with each other on a rhythmically irregular and somewhat dissonant riff until the vocals enter.
Leave it to Costello to enlist — for use in the opening line, no less — a literally antiquated word: “I’m on tenterhooks / Ending in dirty looks.” “Tenter hooks” refer to the hooks woolen cloth were hung on to dry, and the word alternatively describes an intense feeling of anxiety. Its etymology hasn’t really been relevant for centuries. “Pump it up, until you can feel it / Pump it up, when you don’t really need” — in a sense, “Pump It Up” could be considered a bizarre ode to abstinence. Masturbation is celebrated here as a risk-free alternative to the comparatively treacherous and nerve-wracking “game” of securing a mate.
In the second-verse, Costello’s flair for sexual innuendo is in full force: “Down in the pleasure center / Hell-bent or heaven-sent / Listen to the propaganda / Listen to the latest slander / There’s nothing underhand / She wouldn’t understand”. Then, in the second chorus, Elvis inverts the two lines, singing “Pump it up / Until you can feel it” first and then “Pump it up / When you don’t really need it” second, a pattern he curiously retains for the remainder of the song’s choruses. In the third verse, Costello compares the allure of a girl to that of a narcotic.
“Pump It Up’s” lyrical highlight is contained within this verse, with the brilliant misdirection and frighteningly audacious line “You want to torture her / You want to talk to her”. Costello is juxtaposing sadistic desire with the desire to simply go up and greet an attractive girl, maybe suggesting, self-deprecatingly, that they’re one in the same. During the fade-out after the final chorus Costello changes the melody of the line “don’t really need it”, and before the song completes fading out, Pete Thomas switches to a more frantic, hi-hat-oriented beat.
Like several of the songs on This Year’s Model, “Pump It Up” appears on both Live at Hollywood High and Live at the El Mocambo, with both renditions featuring significantly extended instrumental intros, although they’re otherwise faithful (yet slightly faster, per usual).
“Pump It Up’s” significance to the overall album lies mostly in its position in the track sequence: in between “The Beat” and “Little Triggers”, two tracks which could not effectively be placed side-by-side. But in another sense, “Pump It Up” doesn’t add a lot to This Year’s Model — it’s essentially a “dick joke” and that’s that. Not to say that Costello doesn’t inject humor into his songs, but it’s rarely the focus like it seems to be here. It feels like the sort of song written with a hit in mind — and, incidentally, after “Pump It Up”, This Year’s Model takes a much darker turn.
5. “Little Triggers”
If you have any doubts concerning Elvis Costello’s prowess as a vocalist (which wouldn’t make you too unusual), “Little Triggers” should single-handedly put them to rest. The singer’s performance on this particular cut is breathtaking — far more intense and sultry than the singing on its closest equivalent, the prior record’s token ballad, “Alison” — and conveniently, the song is great, too (it’s pretty amazing Linda Ronstadt passed it up in favor of the relatively arcane “Party Girl” off Armed Forces; “Little Triggers” is much more of a “singer’s song”). Costello’s doo-wop appropriation here seems more disingenuously sarcastic (and vice versa) than adulatory, as it is a few records down the line on Get Happy!! — Costello and his band are simply too self-conscious for there to be any other explanation for the showboat-y 6/8 feel, overemotional piano intro, and downright comedic ending attached to the live rendition that appears on Live at the El Mocambo.
Lyrically, “Little Triggers” is Costello at his lovestruck summit. The “little triggers” he’s referring to are the ultimately tiny things — the nuances of a kiss, the brushing of bodies, an adumbrative expression on the lips — that feel momentous at the beginning of a relationship. That state of neural excitement that characterizes those early stages of falling in love, the unbearable “waiting for the call”: it shouldn’t be any surprise that Rob Fleming (Nick Hornby’s love-seasoned avatar in his novel High Fidelity) lists “Little Triggers” as number two on his list of “top five Elvis Costello songs”. “Little triggers, that you pull with your tongue / Little triggers, I don’t want to be hung up, strung up / When you don’t call up” are examples of the sort of lyrical elegance and simplicity that Costello would more or less abandon after This Year’s Model. While the star performer is Costello (naturally), all of the Attractions’ contributions to this song are invaluable and imaginative, with Steve Nieve coming in a solid second; his vivacious piano playing compliments the subject matter perfectly.
As referenced above, an even more dramatic version of “Little Triggers” appears on Live at the El Mocambo (and unfortunately not the sonically-superior Live at Hollywood High). In this version, the piano intro is substituted for four bars of electric guitar drenched in tremolo. The song feels a little sparse in the absence of the additional background vocal tracks and Steve Nieve’s piano doodles. A guitar outro (“unexpected” doesn’t even begin to describe how random it feels) is tacked on to the end of this version, and the song properly resolves instead of concluding on the tentative V chord (Elvis employs the same trick in “No Action”). “Little Triggers” isn’t merely a simplistic homage, which some seem to disregard it as. I personally feel as if it’s one of the record’s highlights, if only because of Elvis’ matchless vocal performance. And that’s saying something, considering This Year’s Model is stacked to the brim with classics.
6. “You Belong to Me”
If you feel uncomfortable singing along to “You Belong to Me” (which is pretty much inevitable if you have functioning vocal cords and even the slightest appreciation for pop music — this song’s refrain ranks among Costello’s catchiest), you’re probably a decent human being. The author’s romantic possessiveness and sexual neuroses that are merely hinted at in previous selections like “No Action” and “The Beat” reach their volcanic acme here (just look at the song title), where they stay for the impassioned remainder of the record.
The song begins with a twangy guitar riff which foreshadows the vocal melody in the verse. The guitar during this introductory section feels a little rhythmically off (incidentally, similar sloppiness occurs in “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” off the following record). It’s no revelation that Costello’s guitar-playing is the Attractions’ weakest link, and it’s really only noticeable when the instrument is isolated (like it is here) or at the front of the mix (as it is in “Peace, Love & Understanding”). Mostly Elvis’ guitar plays a purely textural role; he’s a rhythm guitarist after all, excepting his occasional “excitable” — and sometimes regrettable — leads. After two measures of just guitar, a tambourine submerged in reverb enters the mix (illuminating this slight rhythmic disparity). Pete Thomas plays a straightforward “bumblebee” fill on the snare, and the rest of the Attractions enter. Steve Nieve’s faux-organ is particularly jarring on this track, as he mainly sticks to a higher register, responding to each one of Elvis’ lines during the verse with a melody of his own.
Costello’s trademark sneer is extraordinarily, and appropriately, threatening on the opening line “What are you girls gonna tell your mothers?” The band builds up in the pre-chorus (even Costello, reportedly a “very loud singer in the studio”, sounds like he’s exercising restraint) before exploding into the refrain. The transition’s signaled by another snare fill, and some of Costello’s most boorish innuendo: “You act dumb, you say you’re so numb / You say you don’t come under his thumb”. After Elvis sings the words “goodie-goodie”, all of the instruments seem to hang in suspension, anticipating the rhythmic “hit”, while Bruce Thomas plays a baseline in direct response to the vocals (certainly one of his most brilliant and memorable contributions to the album).
The second verse is rife with clever — if hollow — sexual innuendo (a line-by-line interpretation would be crassly gratuitous). “Your eyes are absent, your mouth is silence / Pumping like a fire hydrant / Things you see are getting hard to swallow / You’re easily led, but much too scared to follow” — the awkward-sounding last lines suggest Costello’s attachment to the words and seeming disregard for syllabic correspondence (also see: “anesthetize” in “Radio, Radio”). Costello’s note-y repetition of the words “you belong to me” during the bridge are reminiscent of the “Eastern”-sounding vocal coda to “I Want to Tell You” by the Beatles, off of Revolver — like its closest sonic relative “This Year’s Girl”, “You Belong To Me” also sounds like a mid-’60s Stones or Revolver-era Beatles song (think “She Said, She Said” or “Got to Get You Into My Life”).
Live renditions appear on both Live at Hollywood High and Live at the El Mocambo, and “You Belong to Me” remains a staple of Costello’s live set even now. On both these recorded performances, the band “grinds” before the song resolves, as opposed to fading out on the recording. It’s also worth mentioning that “You Belong to Me” closes the first side of the original record — the contrast between it and the following, far less energetic track “Hand in Hand” is somewhat lost if you’re listening to the album in any other form.
7. “Hand in Hand”
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 “backward 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” from 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 that Paul and John singing the line instead of a double-tracked Costello (which it is in reality). The two-section nature of the song gives 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 1980s), 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.
8. “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”
At the beginning of this feature, I briefly mentioned what I described as “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea’s” indefensible omission from the original US pressings of This Year’s Model. Columbia’s argument that “Chelsea” was “too British” for consumption by American audiences, despite its success as a single in England, was fallacious. Certainly, the song is no more British than “Less Than Zero” (which references the British fascist Oswald Mosley in its first line) or the majority of cuts off Armed Forces, which are all chiefly English in nature. (Did you know that “Senior Service” is a UK brand of cigarettes, preferred by sailors, or that the “Green Shirts” was an abridged name for the Social Credit Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Neither did the “big boys” at Columbia Records, I’m guessing.)
Perhaps it’s the song title that set off the alarm, though. Chelsea is a decadent region of West London, occasionally associated with prostitution, which seems to be “Chelsea”‘s pivotal focus. Regardless, the fact that most American audiences didn’t hear the song until its surreptitious appearance on the B-sides and assorted curios compilation Taking Liberties is a tragedy — it’s quintessential Attractions. Costello himself admits that the song was more or less a Who ripoff until Pete and Bruce Thomas’ jagged contributions, and Pete Thomas’ drum intro is definitely one of the song’s highlights (it might be the flashiest moment in his recorded history with the group).
“Chelsea” is the most multilayered song on the record (assuming yours isn’t the original US pressing). It’s overflowing with countless interpretations — likely deliberate, considering Costello’s lyrical genius and dexterity. The narrator seems almost voyeuristic, observing the tawdry contemptibleness occurring in Chelsea from a concealed vantage point (imagine the invulnerable narrator being the photograph of Costello behind the camera on the album cover — it’s helpful and frightening). “Photographs of fancy tricks / To get your kicks at 66 / He thinks of all the lips that he licks / And all the girls that he’s going to fix” — the man referenced here could either be a “customer” or the woman’s “procurer”, the latter interpretation being more compelling. Perhaps he is trying to “recruit” last year’s models? “They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie” — the woman retains the exotic name Natasha, but has entirely let herself go; in Costello’s own words, she presently resembles Elsie, the Borden Dairy mascot. “I don’t want to go to Chelsea,” Costello reflects at the top of the chorus
The second verse is even more disturbing than the first, as Costello tries to establish some relation between modeling, the subsequent resorting to prostitution or some occupation of equivalent shadiness once the industry no longer needs you, and the inevitable, resulting insanity that occurs from being a wash-up (in a sense, this song could be taken as a “sequel” to “This Year’s Girl”). The ex-model is admitted to a psychiatric ward (perhaps the Hanwell Asylum, which was situated in West London), presumably (“Everybody’s got new orders / Be a nice girls and kiss the warders / Now the teacher is away / All the kids begin to play”).
Once the kids begin to play, “men come screaming, dressed in white coats / Shake you very gently by the throat / One’s named Gus, one’s named Alfie” and when Elvis sings “I don’t want to go to Chelsea” he means something totally different this time, that he will never succumb to this. Costello reprises the first verse for the end of the song, but this time sounds exhausted when he’s singing the end of every phrase. For the pre-chorus, Pete Thomas starts playing a more frantic beat on the drums, while Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve continue to play the same jagged figure on the bass and keys, respectively.
Costello’s vocals in Chelsea are almost as crystal-clear impressive as they are on his vocal standout on Model, “Little Triggers”, but it’s that baseline and ingenious rhythmic figure, in addition to the lyrics, that really drive the song home. It would be interesting to hear Costello’s original arrangement, although based on his description, it’s probably not nearly as good as the finished product (unlike the Merseybeat version of “Everyday I Write the Book”, where the opposite is the case). It’s almost not worth listening to Model unless it’s a version that contains “Chelsea”, as the song’s presence is essential to This Year’s Model‘s overall impact.
9. “Lip Service”
Mr. Costello’s Lennon/McCartney fixation culminates on the record’s ninth track, “Lip Service”. The twangy riff that opens the song is clearly Beatles-influenced, as is the textural acoustic guitar rhythm track, Bruce Thomas’ buoyant, melodic bass playing, and the two-part harmonies in the chorus. According to some sources, the opening line is “You left the water running” — what would be a direct quotation of the titular Otis Redding classic, and the cadence is certainly similar — but the lyrics for the song on Elvis Costello’s official website reveal that the line is, in fact, “You left the motor running”.
“Lip Service” is unusually unexplicit for Costello. Considering the author, it’s impossible to overlook the possibility of innuendo in the song’s title and chorus (once again, I shouldn’t have to elaborate), but it’s probably a stretch. Most of the lyrics seem to concern the narrator’s frustration and infatuation with a confusing and particularly haughty female (examples: “Are you really only going through the motions?”; “When did you become so choosy? / Don’t act like you’re above me, just look at your shoes”).
By the chorus, he’s fed up: “Lip service, is all you’ll ever get from me!” Costello confesses, in one of his most ferocious vocal moments on the record. Presumably, the girl has rejected Elvis (what’s new?); he admits to having provided “lip service” which may in itself be a lie, something that the author is only saying to assuage his own disappointment. Both “Alison” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now” contain similar trenchant kiss-offs or “punchlines” (the scornful “My aim is true” at the end of the chorus in “Alison” and “I knew then what I know now / I never loved you anyhow” at the end of “I Hope You’re Happy Now”). This one’s a little different, though, as Costello laments “If you change your mind, you can send it in a letter to me” at the end of the chorus in “Lip Service”. This isn’t exactly sarcastic like “Alison”, or downright mean-spirited like “I Hope You’re Happy Now” — as a matter of fact, it’s so vulnerable and pitiable it’s hard to imagine it came from Costello. He’s genuinely holding out hope.
The simplicity of the music mirrors the straightforwardness of the lyrics. Somewhat bizarrely, Steve Nieve is completely absent from this track, with the exception of a sustained organ chord at the end of the song (which is a major six chord — again, very (early) Beatles). The real star here could very well be Bruce Thomas and his trilling bass guitar — I frequently find myself humming the bassline to this song, which should say a lot about Thomas’ oft-overlooked melodic gifts.
A live version of “Lip Service” performed as early as 1977 appears as a bonus track on the reissue of My Aim Is True, albeit at a much slower tempo. Footage of a particularly impassioned performance of the song on Spanish TV exists, and the song appears on both Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High, suggesting that at one point EC seemed to have a lot of confidence in the song. All in all, “Lip Service” is a comparatively tame power-pop number that rounds out the otherwise threatening second side of This Year’s Model.
10. “Living in Paradise”
“Living In Paradise” is one of Elvis Costello’s unsung masterpieces. The song’s inconvenient placement in the track sequence might in part be responsible for its relative anonymity. The goofy instrumental passage that repeats throughout the song — Bruce Thomas’ disheveled bass-playing, Pete Thomas’ ska drums drenched in that outdated phaser effect that will regrettably rear its head twice more in “Lipstick Vogue” and “Radio Radio”, and Steve Nieve’s especially outrageous keyboard noodling — set it apart from anything else on the record (certainly any of the cuts on the second side).
Its closest companion in Costello’s oeuvre is “Sunday’s Best” from the following record Armed Forces, which is similarly too carefree for its own good. It lags, whereas the rest of the album is propulsive and emphatic (aka “punk”); it’s the only moment where Costello lets his foot off the accelerator ever so slightly. Both songs disrupt the flow of their respective albums, to an extent; wedged in between the overbearing “Lip Service” and “Lipstick Vogue”, “Living In Paradise” is an awkward cool-down (it probably would have been better as, say, the last track on the first side). But while musically it may be out-of-place, it’s also the most fluid representation of the author’s misogynistic and covetous nature on the record. I am always amazed when those who review This Year’s Model manage to overlook the song entirely.
The contempt contained within the opening line alone (“I don’t like those other girls looking at your curves”) seems pretty hard to miss, even amid the conviviality of the accompanying music. It’s followed up by the similarly accusatory “I don’t like you walking ’round with physical jerks”, which could imply that the girl Elvis is singing about either has an entourage of brawny boys who follow her or, more likely, moves her body suggestively. It’s unclear whether or not this girl actually “belongs” to Costello, or if she’s just an object of his fantasizing, somebody that the narrator desires from afar. Running with the latter interpretation, Elvis occupies sort of a stalker role here: the delusion of reciprocated affection only leads to further disappointment, as Elvis follows his subject around and witnesses her flirting and kissing other men. He feels possessive of a woman he’s not even in a relationship with, to satisfy his own pathological self-destructive tendencies.
The slide guitar in the pre-chorus is one of the few enduring aspects of a country-tinged early version that was recorded during the My Aim Is True sessions. During the second verse, Costello jabs at his sexual ineptitude in one of the subtlest lines on the record: “‘Cause meanwhile up in heaven, they’re awaiting at the gates / Saying “we always knew you’d make it, didn’t think you’d come this late”. Things escalate by the third verse, where Costello watches the girl he’s infatuated with “touch” another boy from the keyhole on her door (“‘Cause I’m the first to know whenever the plans are laid” — again, innuendo).
For the final chorus, Costello repeats “Here we are, living in paradise” a total of four times and then sings “limited luxury!” in a different (harmonizing) melody, with all of his energy. For half a minute, he repeats the line “you’re already looking for another fool like me” while Steve Nieve plays an independent keyboard melody underneath him. The repetition here is more effective (and frankly, less annoying) than it is in “Hand In Hand” — as the song fades out, you can almost picture Costello sinking deeper and deeper into an abyss of self-pity.
A live version of the song appears on Live at Hollywood High. At the beginning of the track, Costello thanks the audience for “sticking around after school” and rightly dedicates “Living in Paradise” to “all the boys on the track, the boys in the locker room, and all the physical jerks”. “Living in Paradise” is one of Elvis’ most underrated songs from this period, and in my opinion, one of the standout tracks off This Year’s Model. Don’t let the little bit of silliness deter you.
11. “Lipstick Vogue”
“Lipstick Vogue” builds off themes established previously on This Year’s Model in songs like “The Beat” and “Hand In Hand” (and bits and pieces of all the rest): dissolving relationships, sexual guilt and insecurity, and romantic possessiveness. But here, the Attractions are simply unrestrained: like in “No Action”, things sound like they could fall apart at any second. And during the bridge, they sort of do.
The song begins with a drum fill, but compared to the intro in “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” this one is imprecise (you can almost picture Pete Thomas flailing about behind his kit — think Animal from the Muppets). Steve Nieve leads in with a keyboard line, and then the rest of the band enters as Pete Thomas settles into a stable beat. Bruce Thomas is again in fine form, keeping the song melodically interesting even in the absence of a vocal line (sometimes Bruce’s bass lines are as catchy, after all).
Costello is presumably addressing a girl whose affection is suspect: “Don’t say you love me when it’s just a rumor / Don’t say a word if there is any doubt”. Costello compares their stagnant relationship to a tumor and suggests they should “cut it out”, in the first of two chilling self-mutilation analogies in the song. “You say you’re sorry for the things that you’ve done / You say you’re sorry but you know you don’t mean it / I wouldn’t worry I had so much fun / Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being” — in this second part of the verse, the narrator acknowledges the relationship’s sexual perks, sardonically adding that they “almost made him feel human” in spite of his neuroses. Costello sounds breathless when he sings here, and it compliments the song’s rushed aesthetic.
The rhythm guitar is more prominent in the mix than it is on most of the album. For the majority of the verse, Elvis aggressively “scrubs” on one chord, although his playing is more subdued during the choruses. Steve Nieve plays a single-note piano melody during the brief transition to the song’s relative major key during the chorus that’s reminiscent of Abba, either intentionally or on accident (a neat foreshadowing of the band’s all-out “Dancing Queen” emulation on Armed Forces’ “Oliver’s Army”). On “it’s you” in the chorus, Costello makes a sloppy, pitchy attempt at vibrato, a technique he wouldn’t master until Trust, at least.
The Attractions “take things down a notch” for the second verse: there’s no guitar, just bass and drums, and a quietly sustained organ chord by Steve Nieve. After the last line of the second verse — the cryptic and genuinely frightening “You say I’ve got no feelings / Well this is a good way to kill them” — the band degenerates into the jammiest moment on the record (which they would occasionally extend during live performances). Every instrument grows more and more pronounced and right when you think the band has reached their breaking point, everyone stops playing abruptly except for Pete Thomas (with additional piano sprinkles courtesy of Steve Nieve), who plays a variation of the opening drum pattern.
Then Costello enters — this is the final verse? The entire band enters again at a reprise of the song’s standout line (“Sometimes I almost feel… just like a human being!”). During this final chorus, Elvis sings an unconventional low harmony on the word “you” that is practically imperceptible at a low volume. During the coda, Elvis participates in a playful, 2 Tone-esque call-and-response with the Attractions. The song ends on an unresolved chord, and Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve both provide instrumental speckles over another one of Nieve’s sustained, eerie organ chords.
Live renditions appear on both Live at Hollywood High and Live at the El Mocambo, and plenty of footage of the song being performed live around this period of Elvis’ career exists. Costello had good reason to feel confident about it — it’s another one of those cuts that’s representative of the Attractions (I mean, could you imagine this song appearing on My Aim Is True? I thought not).
12. “Night Rally”
Costello’s penchant for Nazi analogizing burgeons on “Night Rally”, the 12th and second-to-last track on This Year’s Model, and an interesting foretelling of Armed Forces (which does the same sort of things with more precision). The cut has its moments, but it’s the closest thing to a weak track on Model and its omission from some US pressings of the record isn’t too regrettable (unlike “Chelsea”; but like “Chelsea”, it was later included on the odds-and-ends compilation Taking Liberties). Aspects of the tracks are suspiciously similar to “Green Shirt” off the following record — both songs’ verses have the same clumping, quarter-beat feel, with anticipatory intervals in between bass and drums during the verses.
In the chorus, the (always melodically-conscious) Pete Thomas plays snare hits in time with the vocal melody (“Night . . . ral-ly”). The cathartic choruses and Spector-esque bridge (which features a dramatic change of key) are the song’s highlights. The lyrics’ significance are sort of confined to their time, as Costello allegedly wrote the song in response to a sudden abundance of neo-Nazi rallies around London in the late 1970s. The refrain (“You think they’re so dumb, you think they’re so funny / Wait until they’ve got you running to the night rally”) is a warning to the susceptible masses not to underestimate the viral ideology. An eerie feedback noise enters and ensnares the song during the fade-out, and Costello deliberately sings “night rally” in a slurred, off-kilter melody (a zombie impression?) to contribute to the cacophony. the song gets progressively louder, and then abruptly cuts off. It almost sounds like a technical glitch.
Bonus Track: “Radio Radio”
On original pressings of This Year’s Model, “Night Rally” was the last song in the sequence, and thus, the end of the album. “Radio Radio” was tacked onto subsequent pressings due to its success as a single, and its inclusion changes the tone of the record immensely. “Night Rally” is threatening and filled with devastating imagery, and “Radio Radio” — while no less subversive in its subject matter — is more upbeat, and most satisfyingly, contains a proper resolution.
“Radio Radio” is one of Costello’s most-discussed — and most-loved — compositions, and for good reason. The fact that it’s become one of the most recognizable songs in the artist’s oeuvre only adds to its weird, self-aware sense of irony. It’s almost contrarian of Elvis to be railing against commercialization and censorship in a gorgeous, entirely consumable pop song (as far as straightforward power-pop songs go, this is one of Elvis’ finest). The song is said to have been inspired by the BBC’s efforts to suppress the popularity of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”. Elvis debuted the song on Saturday Night Live months prior to This Year’s Model’s release (coincidentally, as a last-minute fill-in for the Sex Pistols) in an incendiary act of his own: Elvis and his band were actually set to play “Less Than Zero” another political (but esoteric) song off My Aim Is True, and in an impulsive decision played “Radio Radio” instead. SNL creator/producer Lorne Michaels claims that he wasn’t outraged by the inflammatory subject matter, but rather Costello’s decision to perform a song the camera crew didn’t know the cues to.
The song is indelible off the bat — Steve Nieve’s keyboard intro is truly classic. Costello sings here in his signature sneer — his vocal performance on “Radio Radio” is his “brattiest” on the record, a fitting culmination. In the pre-chorus (“I was seriously thinking”) Elvis alternates between two power chords, and the bass ascension gives them harmonic complexity. A vocal harmony enters in the chorus (“Radio, it’s a sound salvation”) — the narrator is attacking the government for thinking that their jurisdiction over the radio is a reliable method of preventing insubordination, with the word “sound” being a clever reference to the song’s topic, additionally. “They say you better listen to the voice of reason / They don’t give you any choice, ’cause they think that it’s treason” — again, an explicit reference to the situation with “God Save the Queen”.
In the bridge, Elvis acknowledges the incongruity in attacking the very thing that lets him eat, but his disdain for censorship is intractable: “I wanna bite that hand that feeds me / I wanna bite that hand so badly / I wanna make them wish they’d never seen me”. In the second verse, Costello sings about how the majority of people are manipulated by the media into being indifferent, that the people (“his friends”) who care about what’s being withheld from them are a splinter group: “Some of my friends sit around every evening and they worry about the times ahead / Everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed”).
The pre-chorus this time is different, jagged: the band cut out, and briefly play syncopated hits at the beginning of each measure, with most of Elvis’ vocals isolated. He manages — just barely — to fit “anesthetize” into the last line, one of his most ambitious lyrical plunges on the record. After a reprise of the chorus, Elvis sings, with burning, near-tangible sarcasm, “Wonderful radio / marvelous radio”, The hilarious coda is itself a send-up of “God Save the Queen” — as in, the British national anthem, not the Pistols song.
“Radio Radio” remains a staple in Costello’s live set. The band plays it towards the beginning of a set or in an encore on his “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tours even if it’s not selected by the wheel. The song appears on both of his famous live albums from the period, too, Live at Hollywood High and Live at El Mocambo. “Radio Radio” is an interesting closing track in the sense that it deviates from the album’s primary focus of unrealized romance. But somehow, maybe inexplicably, it fills its role better than any of the other selections of This Year’s Model could have (perhaps because it’s a breath of fresh air).