I’ve been away for a while, I know. I have been writing, whether it’s the 30+ reviews I wrote over at Cinema Dual for the annual Hooptober horror marathon, or the twice-weekly posts for Nine Circles to help out while we slowly start to build up staffing. But writing purely for myself has been rare, and I want to come back and find my voice, find myself again where there are no parameters or guidelines for what I have to write about (well, except it would be music-related). So I came up with an idea, something that will probably take a couple of years before it’s done, and I’ll kick that off in the next couple of weeks here on the site. In the meantime, I’m going to spend some time writing about my favorite records, the ones that have become a part of my DNA. And for no reason other than the fact I grabbed it off the shelf today, we’re going to start with My Aim Is True, the debut from the one, the only, Elvis Costello.
I was given My Aim Is True like I was given so many of the albums that shaped my person: on one side of a 90-minute Memorex cassette (the other side had This Year’s Model). At this point I was vaguely familiar with Costello; “Veronica” was a modest radio hit with an absolute earworm of a vocal melody – something I would learn very quickly was a hallmark of Costello’s writing – but that was about it.
“I put it in the preferred sequence,” my friend said1. There were also vague allusions to this and This Year’s Model being Costello’s “Guilt and Shame” albums, although to this day I can’t remember which was supposed to be which. I don’t really remember mush else, because when I hit play the first song I heard was “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and I was transfixed. Is that weird? It was like someone had tore off a piece of my flesh, scribbled a new gene code and put it back. Some of it was the rough and ready classic rock and roll callback in the arrangement, some of it was in the incredible knack of the vocal melody to be exquisite on its own to sing along to while simultaneously inviting you to harmonize like a madman on the refrains.
“But when they told me ’bout their side of the bargain, that’s when I knew that I could not refuse. And I won’t get any older now that angels wanna wear my red shoes.”
His lyrics evoked mythology as much as school crush narrative. Faustian deals with angels, The Wizard of Oz, the suck of seeing your object of desire moving (dancing) away. With one song Elvis Costello demonstrated his refusal to be confined to the tenants of genre, even as musically he ground his songs deep into the bowels of R&B, rock and roll, and the burgeoning punk scene.
If “(Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” was the galvanizing event, it didn’t let up. “Less Than Zero” and “Mystery Dance” with its references to Shakespeare and the awkwardness of the event the song refers to spoke to a 17 year old kid in the throes of the fallout of his first serious romance. Kicking the album off with those three barnburners may have made all the difference: would I have fallen for Costello’s music at all if my first real exposure was “Welcome to the Working Week”? It makes sense as an opener, and the fast punkish riffing is certainly catchy, but the lyrics and melody lack the hook that would have torn into me. “Miracle Man” fares much better, its slippery guitar tone meshing nicely with Costello’s lyrical pulse. The real catches on Side 1 proper for me start with “Blame It On Cain” and end with “Alison” which – overplayed as it may be – boasts such a great singalong chorus I’ll never tire of it.
No discussion of My Aim Is True is complete without “Watching the Detectives”, a single in the UK but added to the US release, which is how it appeared to me when I discovered the album in 1990. It’s misleading to simply tag it as a reggae number; the bass takes charge in a way that’s startling, and juxtaposed against Costello’s vocal melody on the verses further works against the expectations of a reggae song. It’s an extraordinary song, more so because at this point the Attractions weren’t even a thing yet: Costello’s backing band was an American group named Clover whose claim to fame after this would be breaking up and moving on to bands like The Doobie Brothers and Huey Lewis and the News.
Taken together there’s something just rough and rowdy about My Aim is True that gets sacrificed for the sophistication the Attractions would enable Costello to play with on This Year’s Model and subsequent album. I fell in love with so many of them, from the soul/R&B of Get Happy!! to the weird pro-pop of Imperial Bedroom (long live “Shabby Doll”) to the Americana pretensions of King of America and even the latter day revitalization of All This Useless Beauty and his various partnerships with Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint, and T Bone Burnett. There’s not an Elvis Costello album that doesn’t have at least some place in may heart (okay, maybe Kojak Variety), but it all started with My Aim Is True, and it’s the one that the deepest ingrained into my psyche.
1 His “preferred sequence” and the order I still prefer to listen to the album in is below:
- (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
- Less Than Zero
- Mystery Dance
- Pay It Back
- I’m Not Angry
- Waiting for the End of the World
- Welcome to the Working Week
- Miracle Man
- No Dancing
- Blame It On Cain
- Sneaky Feelings
- Watching the Detectives