It's hard to remember a new artist whose second album has so topped an already impressive debut work as much as Elvis Costello's "This Year's Model." Six months ago his "My Aim Is True" was being hailed as an explosive barometer of a churning musical storm in England; the new one precludes the need for any further forecasting: Costello is a full-blown tidal wave.
Two other Brits have impressive new records out.
Costello, and the two, Ian Dury and Nick Lowe, might easily be mistaken for punk rockers. While they share with the punks as angry-youngman visage, all three have the ability to a) compose songs that utilize more than three chords; b) include solos that display some familiarity with musical instruments; and c) write words more sophisticated than "Daddy is My Pusher," the title of (and most of the words to an actual punk rock song.
Dury, who like Costello and Lowe records for the Stiff label ("The Shape of Things To Come" is the company's motto), can in many ways be considered the label's standard-bearer. It is difficult to think of an American performer who combines so acutely a real sense of rock's rhythms with a perverse sense of its excess.
His Sex & Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll" (a phrase Janis Joplin once wanted to use for an album title until Columbia Records decided it wasn't quite subtle enough to be racked in supermarkets) closes a collection called "Live Stiffs" and features this trio of musicians and then some. There's spontaneous dynamism in this cut, as well as a bare-bones deliverance of all that rock 'n' roll is.
On Dury's own "New Boots & Panties!", there's more of the same, with a heavy emphasis on the sexual side of rock in a wacko, black-humorist way. His music is equally raunchy - of the three the most in tune with the real tenor of American rock 'n' roll.
Lowe, who bridges Dury and Costello, is a legend in British rock circles both as a performer and a producer (of Costello's "My Aim Is True" as well as a study overlooked hotrocker, "Max," by the Rumor, available in this country on Mercury).
"Pure Pop for Now People" (JC 35329) is Lowe's first LP, a wonderful amalgam of slick pop melodies - the Beatles, the Beach Boys, bubble gum, disco, it's all here - with lyrics from left field. How about a ballad of Marie Provost, whose dachshund nibbles her up in Hollywood's golden age? How about the bossa nova beat on a tune about the castration of Fidel Castro? And how about, in the aftermath of"Holocaust," a tune that proclaims "as the world turns at the edge of night/I'll find a little Hitler of my own?"
Fear not, however, that this LP is a lapse in taste. Titled "Jesus of Cool" in England, CBS has released it here as "Pure Pop for Now People."
Costello's release is not an album of striking virtuosity, although there are several intense moments of instrumental virtuosity on it, particularly the plaintive construction of "Little Triggers" and the bleak Phil Spector/Ronettes-sounding "Hand In Hand" ("If I'm gonna gow down/You're gonna come with me").
Once again Costello, 23, has captured all the anger of an age in lyrics and music that send steam pouring out of the speakers. "Sometimes," he sings, "I think that love is just a tumor/I've got to cut it out."
Costello's precise talent lies in lyrically breaking the clinches of rock and matching the tone of his music to the urgency of his lyrics. "Every time I phone you," he sings, "I just want to put you down." BANG! BANG! The drums and guitar explode. "I don't want to be your lover," he sings, "I just want to be your victim." And the early-'60s-sounding organ plays a desperate little riff.
There's an excitement in Costello's music that's lacking in most rock today.It's combination of the early violence of rock 'n' roll with a highly polished style of lyricism that seems to capture a cutting edge of angst. He brings to mind the power and bitterness of Bob Dylan in his early electric days - "Pump It Up" is either a homage or a subconscious copy of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" - although with less of the abstract universals that Dylan so reveled in.
"This Year's Model," originally titled "Little Hitler," until that was scrubbed, closes with a song called "Radio Radio" that could have been rock's summer cruisin' anthem had Costello not decided to castigate radio-station program directors so heavily in it. The music is characterized by a driving, reeling beat, not unlike a motorcycle flying down an empty road, and Costello neatly describes the radio as the "sound salvation" of pop culture, all within a framework of his friends who are worried about the future.
"I want to bite the hand that feeds me," he announces with little warning, and then "the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/Who want to anesthetize the way you feel."
Sentiments like these may prevent Costello from getting to the top. But somehow, with all its frenetic madness, there's more fun involved in watching rock underdogs go all the way than contenders in any other endeavor. If Costello makes it, it will be in spite of his integrity - and not because he doesn't deserve it.