This Year's Model
Ralph McLean reviews his favourite Elvis Costello album, ahead of his Belfast Festival appearance
The shape shifting tendencies of Elvis Costello are well documented.
Down the decades the man born Declan McManus has courted classical, gone country, weirded out in Grateful Dead beard and shades, cosied up with everyone from McCartney to Burt Bacharach and delivered some of the most thrilling, melodic music imaginable along the way.
Despite this talent for chameleon like re-invention, though, there’s only one Costello that I have freeze framed forever in my mind.
The year is 1978 and the world – or me and plenty of other similarly impressionable kids at any rate – are waiting for the next big thing. With his pipe cleaner trousers, skinny little polka dot tie, over sized Buddy Holly bins and general aura of abject geekdom, Costello timed his arrival beautifully. And if he looked right he sounded even more on the money as the first flush of punk faded and new wave arrived.
Spitting out the bile of a lifetime spent being ignored or mocked with a barely concealed rage, while the equally wired racket of The Attractions rattled away behind him, he was a man on fire and just about unstoppable when he unleashed This Year's Model in March of that year.
I bought the album in Caroline records and swiftly took it home to blast it out on my sister’s record player. I was a fan before the garage thrash of the opening 'No Action' had faded from the cheap plastic speakers.
The Attractions, making their first appearance with Costello, batter the living daylights out of their instruments throughout and add a new wave crunch to proceedings that fits the fat free songs perfectly.
And what songs they are. The Dylanesque rush of 'Pump It Up', the 60s B movie in three minute pop form that is '(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea' and the immense 'Lipstick Vogue', perhaps the most vicious song about celebrity culture ever committed to vinyl, all jostle for attention on an album refreshingly free from filler.
There are great screwed up relationship songs like 'You Belong to Me', tales of fascist uprisings (a common Costello concern at the time) like 'Night Rally' and even the odd song about his own status as the next big thing in 1978, the brilliant 'Living In Paradise'.
All that and it’s a got a great Barney Bubbles designed sleeve showing Elvis crouched over a camera ala David Hemmings in Blow Up. All things considered it’s just about perfect.
There are more ornate Costello creations. Imperial Bedroom from 1982 comes to mind, and more grimly personal efforts as well. Anyone who can sit through the devastating I Want You from Blood And Chocolate from 1986, for instance, is a better man than me.
But This Year's Model is the sound of a man and his band hitting their stride beautifully and nailing their unique sound. Costello, bass player Bruce Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve mesh together like only the tightest of live acts can and the drumming of Pete Thomas almost takes the top of your head off at times such is its faintly unhinged ferocity.
Produced by the great Nick Lowe it’s got the hits, 'Pump It Up' and 'Chelsea' are both solid gold 70s pop gems. It’s got attitude by the bucket load, angry hardly covers it really, and it’s got the blood and sweat of the eternal outsider fighting to be heard all over every single track.
He may have visited more picturesque places since but should Elvis leave the building tomorrow I want to remember him this way.
Elvis Costello plays the Waterfront Hall on October 28, part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. Book tickets here.