So, here’s the first reappraisal of an age-old album. It’s not commemorating an anniversary of any kind, it’s just a revisiting of an album that I haven’t listened to for a while to consider what all the fuss was about and if it is still justified.
I was a massive Elvis Costello fan, from Armed Forces (released 1979) to Spike (1989). At the time though, his first two albums had passed me by. Remember, if you wanted to listen to a new record back then you had to invest hard cash in it or hope that a friend would do so and play or lend you the record. From memory I only heard this album once before revisiting it on i-tunes, and that was at a fairly raucous student house party. More on that later.
‘This Year’s Model’, Costello’s second album came out in March 1978, reaching No 4 in the UK and just nudging into the Top 30 in America. It has regularly featured in lists of the greatest records of the decade, the century or of all time usually in a mid table position.The album was the first to feature the Attractions, although they wouldn’t be credited until later. Nick Lowe produced it and at the time he was the go to producer for new wave acts, an influencer and a taste maker.
From memory, this was also the time that Costello was seen as a trail blazer. Acts such as Joe Jackson, Graham Parker and The Jags were bracketed with him as angry young men, spitting bile into the microphone for it to be transformed into gobbets of perfectly formed, radio friendly rock.
On release it was well received and generally acknowledged as a big step forward from his debut. Reviewers welcomed his spiky and aggressive songs that bit the hands that fed him. Melody Maker saw evidence in this album that he was a better songwriter than Bruce Springsteen.
The album has been reappraised over the years and has held up well. Music website Consequence of Sound felt it proved that punk and pop could co-exist and identified it as the start of a run of albums, nicknamed Murderers’ Row, that would run through to ‘Goodbye Cruel World. In other words it’s the start of his classic pop years.
Elvis obviously rates the album, as he re-recorded it last year with various collaborators in Spanish (‘Spanish Model’). That was a bit of a problem for me when revisiting ‘This Year’s Model’ because the re-versions had left me cold.
That’s enough background. How does it stand up today? Can we still hear what the fuss was all about?
It stands up surprisingly well. Costello’s latest album ‘The Boy Named If’ was widely regarded as a return to the sound of ‘This Year’s Model’ showing that it’s still an album to reckon with for him.
What registers most over a gap of 44 years, apart from how young they all look, is Costello’s sneer. More than the lyrics, or the Attractions’ playing, it defines this album. It marks him out as a sour, bitter observer full of contempt for the naive. ‘Big Tears’ is just one song that is riddled with this contempt.
A big part of my attraction to the Attractions was Nieve’s keyboards. They really broke through on the next album with the ABBAesque keyboard on ‘Oliver’s Army.’ Here they’re restricted mainly to an organ that squeaks its way through the songs. Along with the ska influences of ‘This Year’s Girl’ and ‘(I Don’t Wanna Go To) Chelsea’ it makes the album sound a little clunky and dated.
EC was never a one trick pony. He was a musician before he was a punky new waver and there are touches here that show his liking for country, soul and Motown. What also comes through is a new level of swing, swagger and belief in songs such as ‘No Action’, ‘You Belong To Me’ and ‘Lip Service’. You can also trace the musical line through to ‘The Boy Called If.’ It starts on this album with ‘Little Triggers’.
There were three singles on this album, if you include ‘Radio Radio’ which was left off the original album but added to the later American version.
‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea is and was an ear catching sound from the album. Reggaefied, it marked EC out as someone who could and would take risks in pursuit of an instantly recognisable single. It also became the theme song for countless away supporters visiting Stamford Bridge at a time when Chelsea were sweeping all before them. (Oh, alright I made that up, but it could have been true.)
In its day, ‘Radio Radio’ felt like a bit of a throwaway song but I think time has been kind to it. It’s a great tune, carried along by Bruce Thomas’ bass guitar, and a crowd pleasing shouty chorus.
That leaves ‘Pump It Up’ and a return to that student party where I first registered it as a stunning piece of rock and roll. Its immediacy, power and driving momentum create exhilaration and excitement. It’s a song that cuts through an overcrowded, noisy room, the smoke, the alcohol and an unscheduled visit from the police to break up the party. In my memory it captures the uninhibited joy of the student lifestyle.
So what was the fuss about? I think it was recognition of a new mature voice on the jukebox. It was the sound of a man who sneered at the shallow trappings of the pop world and its followers, while possessing a gift for writing classic and enduring pop tunes and melodies.
This Years Model (no apostrophe grammar fiends) is a milestone for EC, a stepping stone on the way to one of the most glorious sugar coated and excellent run of albums in pop.
I’ll leave the last word to Elvis. Revisit this album, place it on the turntable and
PUMP IT UP!