After telling me I needed to get my ears examined, a reader responded to my criticism of the weak lyrics in Love’s Forever Changes by arguing, “And rock lyrics should hardly be used as a measuring stick. Most of them don’t make sense. This isn’t poetry.”
Man, if that’s true, Elvis Costello is fucked.
Although he has varied sound and style over the years, Elvis Costello’s music has never qualified as groundbreaking or original. There is certainly nothing new about the music on My Aim Is True—it’s largely derived from that period of rock ‘n’ roll between Buddy Holly and The Kingsmen, a sound that harkens back to Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and the girl groups. His highly-Americanized singing voice defines the phrase “barely adequate,” and if there’s a list of great vocalists somewhere with Elvis Costello’s name on it, you are more than justified to refer to that list as “fake news.”
I wouldn’t say that the lyrics are the only reason to listen to Elvis Costello, but they certainly are the main attraction. The sheer diversity of his lyrics is impressive, the consistent quality over the years even more so. But I would argue that the most important aspect of Elvis Costello’s lyrics is that they are firmly grounded in the structures and vernacular of popular music, and despite the bias associated with the label “popular,” qualify as poetry by every definition of the word:
- Merriam Webster: “Writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”
- Dictionary.com: “The art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.”
- O. E. D: “Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.”
While not all popular music qualifies as poetry, the field should not be automatically excluded from poetic consideration simply because it’s music for the masses and sells like hotcakes. No one can convince me that some of the great songs written by Richard Thompson, Ray Davies, Elvis Costello (and others) fail to meet the standard of “concentrated imaginative awareness of experience” or fall short of creating “a specific, emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm.” And hey, didn’t a guy with several Top 20 hits just win the Nobel Fucking Prize for Literature?
The reader cited above is fully correct in saying that most rock lyrics don’t make much sense. Whether that’s because most rock music lyricists slept through English class or formed the belief that poetry is something highfalutin’ and not a good fit for the base motivations (i. e., sexual drive) of rock ‘n’ roll is up for debate. I personally think it’s because writing great lyrics is hard work and most rockers did in fact sleep through English Lit when they couldn’t figure out a way to cut class.
Someday I’d like to participate in a debate based on this proposition: “Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ meets the established criteria of a poetical work.” I would take the side supporting that resolution, arguing that “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bom-bom!” is a masterpiece of onomatopoeia that creates a tremendous emotional and carnal response.
Back to Declan Patrick MacManus aka Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True demonstrates that he was way ahead of the pack from the get-go in terms of lyrical content. The songs on this début album form a series of everyday experiences written in common language packed with wit, intellect and insight. Given that this was his maiden voyage, there are indeed a few misses where he struggled to tell a coherent story or fell in love with words without imbuing them with much in the way of meaning. And though his voice falls short of the standards set by guys like Presley, Holly, McCartney, Lennon and Daltrey, it’s an earnest voice awash with the delight that comes from singing your heart out to the sound and feel of rock ‘n’ roll.
Clocking in at an impressive one minute and twenty-three seconds, “Welcome to the Working Week” is a sterling example of poetic economy and versatility. The first verse is presented musically as a preamble, rather like the opening passage of Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” with spare music and no rhythmic support until the shift to a girl-group style rhythm played at high speed. Elvis seems to talking to the pop star of the day featured in the morning paper, and the first line serves as the perfect introduction to his career as a songwriter: “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired.” There are two aspects of that line that make it absolutely marvelous: the cleverness of the euphemism for jacking off, and the so very human tendency to speak aloud to images of people in newspapers, magazines or television as if they could actually hear us. Before I cleansed myself of the American experience, I spent hours in front of the television screaming and swearing at images of Trump, and never once thought of myself as insane. The point isn’t to communicate (even this blonde knew that Trump couldn’t actually hear me), it’s to release the outrage provoked by the fact that some worthless piece of shit is getting completely undeserved attention. Elvis Costello spent seven long years in obscurity before breaking through, so I would imagine he felt miffed whenever a no-talent loser usurped his rightful place . . . hence the last line of the verse, “All you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why?” After that outburst (accentuated by the high-speed shift), he flips the subject matter of the conversation to himself and his dreary reality:
Welcome to the working week
Oh, I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you
Welcome to the working week
You gotta do it till you’re through it, so you better get to it
In the two remaining verses, he calls up two other unsatisfying relationships, most likely with work colleagues: one the type who straddles the line between working class pride and resentment while naïvely waiting for the “big day” that will justify his sense of entitlement; the other one of those people who’s always talking out his ass. The last line is marked by a marvelous metaphor (“Why d’you want to be my friend when I feel like a juggler running out of hands?”), reinforcing the sense of manic frustration experienced by a guy with a day job and a musical career, wondering when his “big day” is coming. Hired backing band The Clovers perform their work with due professionalism, contributing harmonies and keeping the beat, fully embracing their supporting role.
“Miracle Man” is a mid-tempo rocker dedicated to an art in which I am fully versed: female domination. First, let’s get a clear picture of the scene:
Baby’s gotta have the things she wants
You know she’s gotta have the things she loves
She’s got a ten-inch bamboo cigarette holder
And her black patent leather gloves
And I’m doing everything just tryin’ to please her
Even crawling around on all fours
Oh, I thought by now that it was gonna be easy
But she still seems to want for more
Why do you have to say there there’s always someone
Who can do it better than I can?
But don’t you think that I know that walking on the water
Won’t make me a miracle man?
Clues scattered throughout the song point to a professional dominatrix: “I could tell by the nights when I was lonely/And you were the only one who’d come” implies a woman who understands the connection between profit and responsive customer service; while “Never given you a bad reputation” indicates she is deeply concerned about the 70’s equivalent of a Yelp score. If this is the case, the male customer is naïve in the extreme to believe he can impress this bitch and flat-out stupid to complain that she’s delivering humiliation as advertised. It’s what you fucking paid for, you moron! Talk about “looking for love in all the wrong places!”
And I think that’s the point: the human search for love in our modern world is fraught with confused motivations and misunderstandings. The guy seems to be attracted to powerful women, but cultural indoctrination has given us men who are obsessed with achievement through action. He tries to have both and winds up with nothing but skinned knees and a sore ass. It also seems to escape him that he’s dealing with an actress, a person paid to play a role, and that professional boundaries require her to not cross the line and engage in personal interactions. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether he’s a miracle man or not, and that understandable indifference is what really damages his ego. In the end, he is the agent of his own humiliation.
Self-Justifying Editorial Note: Though I am a dominant in sexual matters, I don’t believe in humiliation. Making whoopee with a partner who believes they’re a worthless piece of shit isn’t my idea of a good time. What I do is clear out the other person’s bullshit so they know who they are, what they want and what they don’t want.
The first impression on hearing “No Dancing” is “Shangri-Las,” as both music and narrative sync with the teenage angst-ridden music of the revered girl group. Once again we are faced with a young man with a confidence problem who inflates his literary knowledge (“Once he glanced at the jackets of some paperbacks/Now he’s read everyone”) and can’t figure out why everyone winds up considering him a certifiable loser (“Why can’t you give me anythin’ but sympathy?” he asks the latest in a long line of girls who have made a fool of him). Costello defines his problem as “everybody has to feel his pain,” a strategy unlikely to achieve long-term happiness—sympathy is ephemeral, and because “he’s so strange,” it’s hard for anyone to work up some empathy for him. Although not as strong as some of the other pieces on the album, “No Dancing” reinforces one overriding theme of the album: interpersonal awkwardness. If you don’t think that’s a particularly noteworthy theme, I would draw your attention to the incels of today who murder women because of their own lack of interpersonal competence, giving off vibes that are usually labeled “strange” and “weird.” Those harsh judgments reinforce their sense of isolation, increasing the desire for revenge against the women who reject them.
“Blame It on Cain” is about a man who does threaten violence, in this case against government, big business or any convenient abstract power he can blame for his troubles. The poetry isn’t as tight or impactful until we get to the last verse, where we find another link to the difficulties we face in the world today:
I think I’ve lived a little too long on the outskirts of town
I think I’m going insane from talking to myself for so long
Oh, but I’ve never been accused
When they step on your face, then wear that good-look grin
I gotta break out one weekend before I do somebody in
But every single time I feel a little stronger
They tell me it’s a crime, well, how much longer?
The “lone nut” gunman is hardly alone; he has thousands of sick compatriots hiding in those outskirts. One consistent trait of people (usually men) who shoot up workplaces, shopping malls and mosques is the inability to accept responsibility for their actions. They might as well “blame it on Cain” as anyone else, but the one thing they’re not going to do is look inside for the real culprit. The final chilling line, “But it just seems to be his turn,” is his way of giving himself another out by writing off murder to the laws of chance. The light, loping, smoky bar music adds to the casual cruelty of it all.
“Alison” has provoked more commentary than any other Elvis Costello song, the controversy centering on whether or not the story is a murder ballad, a suicide pact of sorts or a jilted lover taking Alison’s life without permission as a noble gesture to relieve her from the existential pain of a loveless marriage. Songfacts has promoted the murder ballad theme, telling readers, “In this tale of unrequited love, ‘My aim is true’ does not imply pure intentions; it means he wants to kill her.” In his defense and in his autobiography, Costello asserted, “I’ve always told people that I wrote the song ‘Alison’ after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.”
I believe Elvis Costello, not because I have any personal knowledge of his character, but because the lyrics completely support his version of the story. “My aim is true” is a phrase of long standing, meant to convey that the speaker is both sincere and trustworthy. The guy in this case is trying to get her back, marriage vows be damned, because he has convinced himself she is in misery.
Alison is silent on the matter, and that’s what’s important. This is a dramatic monologue, and we are only hearing his side of the story. That simple structural choice makes it clear that the focus here is on the male urge to rescue the damsel in distress, and in this case, it’s the male ego’s inability to accept rejection that drives his rescue efforts. For all we know, Alison is perfectly happy in her new life—she hasn’t described her husband as a loser, her annoying ex-boyfriend who can’t fucking grow up did that!
The real mystery here is whether or not Elvis Costello was self-aware enough to recognize what was perhaps his own need to play the hero. His description of the woman who inspired “Alison” would argue against self-awareness—he wanted to save the girl at the supermarket from what HE considered to be a meaningless life. Like the lead character in the song, no one asked her how she felt, including the scene’s observer. The debate about “Alison” is mis-directed: we should be talking about whether Elvis Costello should face charges of unconscious sexism or get credit for exceptional empathy and perceptiveness.
p. s. I do like the rather sweet and sad music.
p. s. s. The phrase “my aim is true” has now been co-opted by gun nuts in the United States as part of a prayer in preparation for the Second Civil War. I found this quote on a Pinterest picture with an image of an assault rifle in dead center: “Lord, make me fast and accurate, let my aim be true and my hand faster than those who would seek to destroy me. Grant me victory over my foes and those that wish to do harm to me and mine.” No, I won’t share the fucking link because these assholes get more than enough attention as it is.
“Sneaky Feelings” clears the air a bit with its snappy beat and refreshing burst of self-awareness. The narrator questions the curious expectation that lovers avoid telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth but instead serve up a menu of “white lies, alibis.” Although he’s been conditioned to hide the sneaky feelings inside, he does tell the girl, “I’d like to get right through the way I feel for you/But I’ve still got a long way to go.” I can accept that—anything’s better than bullshit!
The jangly guitar led the band members to call “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” the “Byrds song,” though it’s hard to imagine that band doing a song like this. Written in ten minutes while riding a train to Liverpool, this yet-another rejection song is certainly catchy but features a story line that is more than a little overwrought. The narrator is apparently a dancing machine (hence the reference to the red shoes of the gruesome Andersen tale), but he gives them up in a bargain with angels whose wings have rusted; in return they grant him immortality. Uh-huh. He then watches helplessly as his girl, completely unimpressed with this ageless wonder, dances away with another guy after telling the him to “drop dead.” Uh-huh. And the point is? Not one of his best.
The strongest song on the album from a musical perspective is “Less Than Zero,” with verses and chorus set to a slightly syncopated “La Bamba” chord pattern and beat. The “hey . . . hey-yay” refrain is a delight to sing and Elvis moves from the almost mumbled verses and bridge to deliver that refrain with cool, full-throated delight. In the United States, where news about what’s happening in the rest of the world is generally ignored by the press unless there’s a disaster involving American deaths, people assumed that the song had something to do with Lee Harvey Oswald rather than the infamous leader of the British fascists, Oswald Mosley. Costello would later accommodate American ethnocentricity by rewriting the lyrics to include references to Lee Harvey, with mixed results (the opening scene where the wife of a secret service agent is giving her lover head while watching the motorcade on live TV is both ludicrous and historically impossible). Now that the world faces a new generation of fascist leaders, the original holds up much better, particularly in exposing the role the media (in this case, the BBC) plays in normalizing politicians who preach hatred:
Oswald and his sister are doing it again
They’ve got the finest home movies that you have ever seen
They’ve got a thousand variations, every service with a smile
They’re gonna take a little break, and they’ll be back after a while
Well, I hear that South America is coming into style
That last line perfectly captures what I hear from my American friends who have recently become a bit more frantic and diligent about getting the fuck out of the country. “I can’t marry all of you,” I reply with regret.
We return to the theme of awkward and insecure relations with one of the few songs in rock that speak honestly and openly about the ultimate awkward moment: the first-time sexual experience. Richard Thompson would cover the topic in “Read About Love,” and like the narrator in that song, the guy in “Mystery Dance” enters the experience with false bravado and limited knowledge gleaned from the only training manuals available to him:
Well, I remember when the lights went out
And I was tryin’ to make it look like it was never in doubt
She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew
So both of us were willing, but we didn’t know how to do it . . .
Well, I was down under the covers in the middle of the night
Tryin’ to discover my left foot from my right
You can see those pictures in any magazine
But what’s the use of looking when you don’t know what they mean?
In a genre that generally celebrates the pursuit and realization of sexual pleasure, it’s almost sacrilegious to find a couplet like this in a rock ‘n’ roll song: “Cause I’ve tried and I’ve tried, and I’m still mystified/I can’t do it anymore and I’m not satisfied.” Although “Mystery Dance” will never make its way onto one of my fuck playlists, I can’t deny its essential truthfulness: the first time sucks! No one knows what the hell they’re doing the first time; the experience is one of foreign sensations, muddled emotions and absurdly unrealistic expectations from a social dynamic that suppresses honest discussions about sex. Kudos to Elvis Costello for having . . . sorry, I can’t help myself . . . the balls to shine the light on cold reality.
“Pay It Back” is less than satisfying, as Costello never really defines the debt he wants to pay back or the motive behind the revenge he wants to wreak. The song is about struggling to find his identity, and the couplet, “And I tried so hard just to be myself/But I keep on fading away” pretty much describes his approach to the lyrics—he actually reveals very little about what’s behind the struggle. “I’m Not Angry” is equally uninteresting, a sort of in-his-head exposition of the cuckold who believes all is fair in love and war. It’s not as bad as Lennon’s “Run for Your Life,” but a pretty close second.
“Waiting for the End of the World” is more interesting and makes much more sense once you read what Costello said about the song in his autobiography: “‘Waiting for the End of the World’ turned a simple homeward journey on the Underground into a claustrophobic travelogue, pulling the hysteria out of newspaper headlines into everyday boredom of the commuter.” Scenes include: men going crazy when the train is stuck in a darkened tunnel, running up and down the aisles trying to grab as much tit as they can before the light reappears; the self-styled guru who’s leaving for Spain with his faux insight and “his two-tone bible and his funny cigarettes/his suntan lotion and his castanets;” and the daily scandal involving an elopement of sorts. I love how he wraps that one up: “You may see them drowning as you stroll along the beach/But don’t throw out the lifeline till they’re clean out of reach.” I AM SO FUCKING SICK OF CELEBRITY ROMANCE! WHO GIVES A SHIT?
The original British version ends there, but because Americans didn’t have the archaic rules about no singles on albums, those on the other side of the Atlantic were treated to “Watching the Detectives” as the closing act. The key to understanding what’s going on here is a simple truth: most people who watch television spend a lot of time not watching television. In addition to the individual internal dialogues raging in each viewer’s head, there are truncated conversations, getting up to grab something to eat or drink or (in this case) intense frustration that your partner wants to watch a stupid fucking detective show when you really want to get her in the sack. The narrator’s attention fades in and out, but his hyperactive mind manages to catch most of what’s happening on the screen and, most importantly, the sheer immorality of it all—the exploitation of the power of violent scenes to trigger the thrill of fear, and the nonchalant indifference to yet another stiff dressed in cement galoshes:
Long shot at that jumping sign
Invisible shivers running down my spine
Cut to baby taking off her clothes
Close-up of the sign that says “We never close”
He snatches at you and you match his cigarette
She pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet
I don’t know how much more of this I can take
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake
The last line refers to his love interest, the one who’s been squealing “he’s so cute” when the heart-throb detective gets a close-up. This was the 70’s, so I hope she didn’t think murderous loser Robert Blake was cute . . . Telly Savalas maybe? Before or after the switch from cigarettes to Tootsie Pops? Michael Douglas? James Garner perhaps. Not Mike Connors—too tough to qualify as cute. Steve McGarrett was the absolute opposite of cute. I know—it has to be Kevin Dobson! Yeah, Bobby Crocker! He wasn’t much of an actor, but he was cute.
I hope you people appreciate the extensive research I have done in the field of American pop culture.
“Waiting for the Detectives” is also the musical highlight of the album, with its Hitchcockian noir reggae feel. The Clovers sat this one out, handing over the supporting roles to Steve Goulding and Andrew Bodnar from The Rumour. What really makes the song is the piano overdubs added by Steve Nieve, his distorted chords rushing the beat to create an exciting build to highlight the “shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot” passage in the chorus.
Elvis Costello’s music would get a lot tighter once The Attractions settled into place, for continuity does make a difference (assuming the group dynamics aren’t toxic). What is important about My Aim Is True is that he carved out a niche as one of the few rockers of his time to devote time and effort to the words. Sure—there are songs where the words don’t matter as much as the rhythm, harmony or melody, but even on those songs, using the wrong words—words that are out-of-place or words that fail to create euphony—can be disastrous. Imagine if Ray Davies had decided to vary the chorus of “You Really Got Me” instead of just repeating that essential line three times: “You really got me/I’ll have you for tea/And then we shall see.” Utter disaster.
Words do matter, and I thank Elvis Costello from the bottom of my heart for consistently reminding us that they do.
Thanks again for another interesting review.
In my mind, I occasionally amuse myself by compiling shortlists of “perfect” pop songs. It so happens that each of those perfect pop nuggets (as determined by a panel of me) are a compelling blend of great storytelling &/or imagery -either sincere or artfully contrived, or where the writer in a moment of fecundity, writes with such inspiration & immediacy, that they have later described themselves as having been a bystander in the process. These songs will usually contain mesmerising rhythm and generally simple, but catchy/clever melodic ideas.
Watching the Detectives & Dreadlock Holiday almost always make my list. Werevolves of London pops up frequently, and Paul Kelly’s wonderful To her Door. Dire Straits’ Romeo & Juliette and Sultans of Swing make the cut, the Go-Betweens’ astonishingly good Cattle & Cane generally at no. 1.
There are no rules as to what makes my list.
I suspect it has as much to do with my age as well as anything else. It just so happens that all have (IMO) poetic merit and tend to be in the narrative form.
I could probably build a massive list, but my memory buffer is not at current spec so I keep my list short & never seem to get to Elvis Presley’s great Suspicious Minds, Return to Sender, Heartbreak Hotel..etc etc
Or Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the Night…(now there’s a song that makes my hair stand on end, but it’s definitely not pop).
Good list, and age always has something to do with it because we generally get into music in our teens, which is the most impressionable life stage. Poetic economy is a very difficult skill to master, and to try to make a meaningful, memorable statement in two or three minutes—set to music—would challenge Keats.
Oddly enough, the first one that comes to mind is Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” performed, of course, by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Absolutely compelling.
I watched TE Ford’s version on utube.
A classy performer & compelling as you say. I quite liked Merle Travis’ unassuming delivery too.
As usual, I very much appreciate the insights your reviews provide. They are particularly helpful in the case of My Aim Is True.
I fell for the hype back in 1977, bought the disc, listened once or twice, and put it away. Here’s why: try to imagine listening to these songs without a lyric sheet. Although some phrases stand out, the many subtleties you illuminate are hard to put together straight from the tracks themselves. And since neither the melodies nor the voice are particularly fetching, I felt little motivation to force myself through the repeated listenings necessary even to attempt the incisive understandings you provide.
After just about giving up on this Elvis right out of the blocks, I was grateful that friends encouraged me to listen to what he and The Attractions brought forth on This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy!!. In these I found a much more satisfying combination of tunefulness, wordplay, and provocation.
The words, thoughts, and feelings Costello expresses are often brilliant, but on this LP, I would rather read them than listen to them being sung.
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