Quoth Robby, last Monday:
Your new assignment for the week is…….
Elvis Costello’s brilliant album from 1977, “My Aim Is True.” I try not to editorialize when I introduce the albums so as not to bias anything, but I can’t help myself with this one. I love this album!
And he’s right, this is a brilliant album. For one thing, it’s just bursting with clever lyrics, starting from the very beginning: “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired…” has to be the best masturbation euphemism in rock. (A more crowded field than you might think — just ask Peter Green or Pete Townshend or Cyndi Lauper.) There’s plenty more, too. How about “I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’m still mystified / I can’t do it anymore and I’m not satisfied” from “Mystery Dance”, or for that matter the entire song’s frustrated evocation of teenage naivete about sex? From “Alison”, “I don’t know if you’ve been loving some body / I only know it isn’t mine” is totally unforgettable. And of course, “I used to be disgusted / but now I try to be amused” is one of the greatest and most quotable lyrics ever.
There’s a Costello-shaped hole in my musical knowledge, due to a quirk of my history. I had a pretty negative experience (in certain ways) my freshman year of college, including a dismal roommate situation with a guy who LOOOOVED Elvis Costello and Squeeze. So for years I unfairly associated those two artists with misery and depression. Even now, they remain only greatest hits bands for me, and I’m very grateful to Robby for specifically prompting me to pay a little closer attention to this phenomenal debut. I was struck by how much it reminds me of one of my all-time favorite debuts, an album I’ve played hundreds of times: Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp!. Not only do these two albums have a point of view and musical attack in common, the artists are at least spiritual cousins, restless and prodigious composers who’ve had long careers of hopping from one style to another, mastering them all and frequently pairing them all with biting and/or poignant lyrics.
Jackson and Costello were labeled “angry young men”, to their mutual disgust, but there’s something to the label, at least for these early albums. So what is Costello angry about? Well, women, for one thing. In song after song, he spits venomous words about some girl or another. In “No Dancing”, “she has made a fool of him / like girls have done so many nights before / time and time again.” In “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”, he says “I’m so happy I could die,” to which she replies, “Drop dead.” In “Miracle Man”, he sneers, “Everybody loves you so much girl / I just don’t know how you stand the strain.” His anger is most obvious, ironically, on the song “I’m Not Angry.” This is a classic emotion-denial song, right in line with 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and John Waite’s “Missing You” — the word “angry”, in a sinister whisper close to the mic, makes it obvious just how angry he really is, despite all protestations to the contrary.
In fact, denying what he really feels (while at the same time completely revealing it) is the primary hallmark of this album. He seems to be angry at women, but look a little closer and it becomes pretty clear that what’s at stake here is injured male pride, vulnerable and badly hidden. Being made a fool of, being rejected, being a loser among competing suitors — every tenderhearted boy’s fear is right here, along with their blustering defenses. If you are or have ever been a boy who struggles with your own ego, emotions, and desires, this is the album for you, because it understands not only the pain, but how you cover it up. Costello has a tough-guy front going on in his punky singing style, and in his claims to be waiting for the end of the world. Everything means less than zero, he tells us, but the evidence is everywhere that everything means quite a bit more to him. He shows us noir femmes fatales in “Watching The Detectives”, their icy indifference highlighted in a shot-by-shot description of a tragic ending for some poor doomed sucker in love: “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.” Those detectives, he says, can’t be wounded because they’ve got no hearts, but he knows the truth: they, and he, and everybody this album speaks to, are nothing but heart underneath.
It’s all there in “Sneaky Feelings”, where he nobly suppresses his desires for fear of “breakin’ up somebody else’s home.” It comes out more poetically in the album’s masterpiece, “Alison.” “I’m not gonna get too sentimental,” he claims, but moments later is achingly declaring, “I know this world is killing you.” She has a husband, but he sees her suffer, and can’t stand it. Calling up echoes of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”, he wishes that somebody would “put out the big light / cause I can’t stand to see you this way.”
What he really wants her to know, though, what he says over and over so much that it sums up the whole album is: my aim is true. What does that mean? It’s an emotional authenticity, surely: “I speak the truth.” But look at all the cover-ups, all the misdirections, all the denials. I think Costello shows us an irony within that earnest declaration. “My aim is true,” claims the narrator of “Alison”, even as he contradicts himself, even has he teeters on the precipice of letting all those sneaky feelings show. “My aim is true” might mean, “I’m better for you than anyone else”, but that’s just male pride again, lining up once more to get shot down. I think what it really means, at bottom, is something pretty simple: my emotions are intense, I crave connection, I’m vulnerable, and I’m scared. In other words, the human condition in general, and the teens/twenties sensitive male condition in particular. Usually the best we can do is try to be amused.