My Aim is True – Elvis Costello

My Aim is True

Elvis Costello

1977 / 1978

Stiff / Columbia / Rykodisc / Rhino / Hip-O

“ELVIS IS KING” — These are the words repeated on the nerdy, checkered cover of Elvis Costello’s debut album.  While this phrase may be an homage to Presley, it also doubles as an alarm to the conceit, the arrogance found in the music of Elvis Costello.  Look at him there, bowlegged, awkwardly holding a guitar on the cover, his bespectacled face ready for the masses.  This is a man without fear.

Now, I mean all of that with extreme fondness.  My Aim is True is a classic album, one of my favorites, and it owes its significance to its pomposity.  The music is slightly eclectic, as Costello opens up an early punk sound to other influences of folk, reggae, and ’50’s rockabilly, a feat which takes refuge in its audacity.  More than anything, however, the lyrics stand out, really pushing the songs into territory not marked by many other songwriters beforehand.  The sarcasm apparent in his somewhat nasally voice creates his signature styling, readily available on this first album.

To a certain extent, I’d include Elvis Costello in the list of early punk musicians.  The Clash formed in ’76, The Ramones in ’74, and The Police in ’77, and I’d be inclined to note that they all had commonalities in their music.  Costello’s music, especially on My Aim is True, really exemplifies that: the powerful simplicity of “Miracle Man,” the brashness of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” and the raw bitterness of “I’m Not Angry.” At this point, Costello would have a pretty solid punk album, and yet, he doesn’t stop there.  The short “Mystery Dance” features music reminiscent of the 1950’s rockabilly, a la Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley.  The album opener, “Welcome to the Working Week,” has backup vocals on it, showing Costello’s penchant for 1960’s and 1970’s harmonies.  His songs even reach out to reggae, with the single (the first to feature The Attractions as his backup band) “Watching the Detectives” pushing him into success.

As I said before, though, the lyrics are what set Costello apart from his peers.  His words in the songs can be cruel and malicious, and they manage to stick with the listener.  The imagery on this album sets up the mood. “Calling Mister Oswald with the swastika tattoo” is crooned in the punchy “Less than Zero.”  “Watching the Detectives” even utilizes movie and television concepts, “Cut to baby taking off her clothes / close-up of the sign that says ‘We Never Close,'” which matches the theme of the tune.  However, the imagery exists to feed the disparaging punchlines prevailing in Costello’s lyrics.  Listen to the amazing “Alison,” which disguises itself in the form of a ballad; Costello’s escalating voice culminates in the accusing “Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking / when I hear the silly things that you say.”  On the demo (found on later editions of the album) “Wave a White Flag” Elvis takes on alcoholism and domestic abuse, humorously over a folk sound, “I can’t resist you / I can’t wait / To twist your loving arms ’til you capitulate.”  These scornful lyrics are the best part of listening to Elvis Costello, as he mines cynicism like very few before him.

My Aim is True is a great listen because Costello is a musician that knows what he’s doing.  He knows his music and how to incorporate his influences into the songs.  He knows the conflict of his words and how to use his voice to make them interesting.  Nowadays, Costello is revered — he had a show on the Sundance Channel called Spectacle: Elvis Costello with… because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of music and he’s worked with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Brian Eno, and so many others.  However, this is his first album, perhaps showing the awkward musician at his most raw, before everything.  Even then, back in 1977, Costello reigned supreme.

Bow before him, you ungrateful peons.

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2 Responses to “My Aim is True – Elvis Costello”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    What a nerd. Pfff, who wears glasses?

  2. […] “Welcome To the Working Week” — Elvis Costello: Thanks for reminding people every single Monday that they’ll have to put up with a bunch of […]

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