Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: ELVIS COSTELLO
Album: MY AIM IS TRUE
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
For someone who has talked about a love-hate relationship with the music of Elvis Costello, his name has shown up here multiple times over the years, often as a reference point for other artists but also in my first post about Gateway Compilations and in last year’s Thirty Year Thursday look back at 1986. The former featured The Best Of Elvis Costello, a wonderful 19-track primer of the first eight years of his recording career which presented some of the most “radio radio”-friendly songs in his catalog at that point. My only issue with Costello has been his tendency to be too clever (lyrically & musically) for his own good, although many fans love that about him. His songs are always interesting, his voice the perfect combination of snarling anger & melodic beauty and the musicians he surrounds himself with are usually world-class players. His best-known band is The Attractions, who first appeared on his sophomore album, but when the world (or at least the portion that was paying attention in 1977) was introduced to the man born Declan Patrick MacManus via his debut record, My Aim Is True, his backing band featured members of Northern California pub rockers Clover. That group featured Huey Lewis (who did not appear on Costello’s record) as well as guitarist John McFee (soon to join The Doobie Brothers), keyboardist Sean Hopper (a founding member of Huey Lewis & The News) and the rhythm section of bassist John Ciambotti & drummer Mickey Shine. While they may not have possessed the distinctive sound of The Attractions, they brought a smooth melodicism to a collection of some of Costello’s most earnest & accessible compositions, allowing the so-called “angry young man” to shine.
Nick Lowe provided solid production on this album, which features two of Costello’s most enduring (and endearing) songs: “Alison” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” Both of these appeared on the aforementioned Best Of collection. The former is a tender ballad with heartfelt lyrics (“Alison, I know this world is killing you”) that also provided the album’s title, while the latter is a propulsive rocker with a killer chorus. With 12 songs in under 33 minutes, he had a lot to say and didn’t waste any time saying it, most notably on punchy album opener “Welcome To The Working Week” (in & out in less than 90 seconds) and the ‘50s rock ‘n roll homage “Mystery Dance” that’s only a few seconds longer. By contrast, deceptively complex tracks like “Miracle Man,” “Less Than Zero” and “Waiting For The End Of The World” seem almost epic at typical single lengths of 3 to 3-1/2 minutes. Shuffle grooves permeate “Blame It On Cain,” “Pay It Back” and “Sneaky Feelings”; the first two firmly in rock and the third visiting jazz & blues territory. He would go on to explore multiple genres throughout his career, and that propensity is clearly on display here. There’s a hint of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” in the verses of “No Dancing,” and the ironically titled “I’m Not Angry” pairs punk aggression with fiery lead guitar that would never have been accepted by that era’s punk rockers. With his impressive debut, Elvis Costello bridged the gap between that genre and the forthcoming new wave movement, without losing sight of the music that inspired him. Maybe I’m a bigger fan than I thought I was. I certainly love this album and I’m impressed at how vital it sounds four decades after it was recorded. Not bad for an artist who was only 22 at the time.