I’ve listened to Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model many more times than the number of years I’ve been alive. For that matter, I’ve listened to it more times than the number of years it’s been out as well, which is to say 35. It was a favorite of my father’s in 1978, who was my age exactly when it first came out, and his affinity for this more bespectacled and angsty of Elvises was passed down to me without the slightest distillation. I’ve listened to the record more times than the number of years my dad’s been alive too, but I think he’d rather leave his age out of this.
It’s nothing short of discombobulating to see This Year’s Model edging in on forty years. It’s the perennial “angry young man” record, and here it is heading into middle age. 1978 saw The Band’s Scorsese-shot and climactic The Last Waltz hit movie theaters and record stores as well as the Stones’ release of their last classic album, Some Girls. Blondie took to the mainstream with Parallel Lines and debuts were delivered from The Police, The Cars and Van Halen. In other words, the pop infrastructure was going through a changing of the guard, and the radio darlings of the ‘80s were already stepping up to bat. Into all of this steps Elvis Costello.
A year before This Year’s Model, he’d already gotten critics and fans on his side with one of the best debut records in history, My Aim is True. It was the kind of album that made all the best production styles and melodies of the ‘50s to ’77 sound like Costello had thought of them first. This was a man equal parts Johnny Rotten and Buddy Holly. A look at the album cover suggests a purer, bygone era, but the lyrics—sexual, caustic and witty—told an entirely different story.
This Year’s Model is where the music caught up to the subversive modernity of the words, and this mostly has to do with the assembling of a pitch-perfect backup group. The Attractions brought in bass lines by Bruce Thomas that could make a valley of dry bones get up and dance, the gentleman-punk drumming of Pete Thomas and the shiny keyboard licks of Steve Nieve. The four recorded a number of great records together, but never did they achieve the kind of musical fusion attained here.
“I don’t want to kiss you, I don’t want to touch” begins the record before the nuclear guitar comes in to punctuate the statement all exclamatory. “No Action,” the first track, was proof Costello’s teeth were a bit more gritted this time around. The frustration here comes in a more visceral package than on My Aim is True or follow-up Armed Forces, certainly 10 times more so than on anything after that. He gets the choleric fog of a breakup perfectly, not meaning much of what he says but somehow never as honest.
“This Year’s Girl” really showcases each member of the band’s everyman virtuosity. Each instrument comes in one at a time until the curtain rises at last on Costello’s vocal satire of male heart versus libido. For the most part, romance at its most sublime and most sordid is suggested to be a sick fantasy here and through the rest of his early work as well. “The Beat” and “Pump It Up” get the dancefloors lit up with people who’d never be seen under the light of a disco ball. Both are pulsating with sexual energy, and the lyrical content’s deeper meanings suggest things you probably wouldn’t want to discuss with your mother. “Little Triggers” is a ballad about something Costello knows best: the power of language or, in this case, the lack thereof. Listen to it every second that girl you just went out with doesn’t call back. “You Belong to Me” closes side one of the original record with a guitar riff that catches like the plague, an anthem against settling into the arms of anyone.
“Hand in Hand” sleeks in over controlled feedback and backward vocals. The keyboards swirl while a relationship built on Mutually Assured Destruction is put on display. “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.” Cue the snare attacks of ”(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” and you have even more evidence of Costello’s resilience against landing anywhere. The riffs and wordplay of “Lip Service” have a stickiness factor that can’t be underscored enough. “If you change your mind, you can send it in a letter to me.”
“Living in Paradise” is the prototype for quite a number of early Weezer songs: catchy power pop hooks coupled with unrealistic demands on women. “Lipstick Vogue” and “Night Rally” are still fun but a little less poignant than all the other songs on the album. Luckily, the LP closes with “Radio, Radio,” a critique of media power that stands up just as much in our own era of Grammy irrelevancy and airwave impotence as it did in 1978.
This Year’s Model is 35 years old, the kind of age where you’re not supposed to be feeling any of the things sung about here anymore. Given his more current work with the likes of Burt Bacharach and T-Bone Burnett, it seems clear even the bespectacled bard behind the music grew out of the angst. But his younger, skinny-suited self stands perched behind that camera on this 1978 classic’s cover still. It’s almost like he knows he’d be taking a photo for the memories. We won’t always be thrown by the winds of an adolescent to late-20s temperament but this album has been as much a perfect soundtrack to that tumultuous time as it was for my dad. Thing’s got staying power; it’s as worthwhile now as it was then. Don’t believe me? Somewhere, the fellow with the Buddy Holly glasses has the pictures to prove it.