Thursday, September 15, 2016

1977 - My Aim is True

Fidgety, disheveled, overcome by a sudden sense of vertigo, the young accountant ducks into a West End bar and takes a seat. There's a dog-eared copy of Metamorphosis in his hand. He knows the story, knows the theme, the method, the motif it's meant to create. Everyone knows he's said "Kafkaesque" before, just by looking at him. The young man, intelligent and generally well-read, but slovenly, easily distracted - fidgety and disheveled - unpretentiously (unlike those hipsters today with their laptops open at a Starbucks) flips through the book with guilt and something like desperation. The barmaid comes up and asks if he'd like anything and he twitches for a second and asks for scotch on the rocks because he used to like the idea of liking the idea of liking scotch, and now he finds a sort of comfort in thinking of scotch as his drink.

That’s my impression (fan-fiction, if you will) of the pre-Elvis Declan McManus. For me that image translates into the Elvis that would go on to create one of the most influential debut LPs of all time. The romantic ideal would tell you that rock acts are meant to spend their debut albums getting everything out of their systems, raging against whatever forced them to become a rock band in the first place. So just what the hell is Costello doing including "Alison" - one of the most tender/caustic, mature love songs in this or any genre? Soulful enough for Van Morrison, accessible enough for Billy Joel, and subtly creepy enough for Randy Newman; it's among the finest songs he’s ever written and the pillar around which My Aim is True (r)evolves.

My Aim Is True was, so far as I can tell, the first responsible pop album to exist contemporaneously with punk. Elvis Costello was cognizant of and receptive to that movement at an early stage, and therein lies the genius of this album. My Aim is True sounds like pop should have sounded in the mid-70's but (often) didn't. It's concise, bitingly honest, clever as hell, and just hard-edged enough to get punk cred, while it’s traditional enough to garner the attention of masses. The LP signifies the beginning of a multi-album collaboration between Costello and producer, the unsung hero of rock and roll, Nick Lowe. While Lowe was around the same age as Costello, he was already a veteran of the music industry and provided much of the focus and direction for fidgety, disheveled Elvis. With one ear attuned to the burgeoning sound of new wave and the other set on the tried-and-true rock and roll of the times, Lowe set the scene for a new kind of pop album. Filler was clearly not an option.

At it's heart, My Aim Is True is steeped in American roots rock of the sort that Elvis and Lowe were old hands from their days on the pub rock circuit. More than that, the album obliges the music of the day: the fury of the burgeoning punk scene and immediacy of the roots reggae movement popular in the UK at the time. Elvis Costello is greatly responsible for adding the London punk sound into the playbook of standard American pop.

To all those who would dismiss it, punk received its inaugural validation from My Aim Is True. That's the great thing about punk. You don't have it like The Damned or The Clash, but those bands and that mindset provided the not-so-gentle coaxing necessary to bring an entire generation of really gifted songwriters out of their bedrooms or the coffee house and onto the charts. It was clearly enough to propel a Poindexterish clerk like Declan McManus into eternal fame. Such is the beauty of liberation; you can hear it all on this record. From the opening line, "Now that your pictures in the paper being rhythmically admired," to "Alison" to "Watching the Detectives," My Aim is True is virtually flawless, and an evolutionary milestone.