This Year's Model

Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Columbia, 1978

REVIEW BY: Andrew Parrot


In 1978, Elvis Costello was angry. This wasn’t a particularly unique sentiment for a new generation of musicians living in the throes of Thatcher-era Britain, but Costello’s animosity took a different form than most.

The Sex Pistols had a rage that boiled at thermonuclear levels—a blast of indignation and a call to action against dire, unjust circumstances. Costello, on the other hand, had an anger that seethed and simmered behind thinly-veiled sarcasm and biting wit. Where Joe Strummer and The Clash bemoaned life’s harsh realities, Elvis Costello took issue with life’s cruel facades—be that the deceptive nature of the music industry, the false idealism of consumer culture, or the seemingly endless stream of flirts and teases for whom Costello just seemed to have a magnetic attraction. It was out of this anger that This Year’s Model was born, a record that recontextualizes the ideological framework of the punk movement—and sounds damn good doing it.

However, This Year’s Model is more than simply an Elvis Costello record. Backing him for the first time here are The Attractions, who provide a jittery, rich sonic palette to match the ferocity of Costello’s songwriting. The band inhabits a uniquely warm but unpredictable sound on this record, and plays with a sense of combustible, tightly-wound energy that electrifies so many of the songs here. Forty-five years on, the pure sound of This Year’s Model still leaps out of your speakers like very few albums in the genre.

And then there’s Costello himself. On the album’s front cover, Costello is seen posing behind a camera, a skeptical observer of the world around him. The songwriting, as it’s always been with Elvis Costello, is a reflection upon that theme, and it’s never been done with more force and venom than on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 This Year’s Model. Later albums may have featured more nuance, but the lack of a counter-argument is part of this record’s appeal; it’s a sledgehammer, so completely convinced of its disillusionment that it becomes profoundly cathartic.

“This Year’s Girl,” the album’s second track, is our first real taste of the sardonic magic this record has to offer. Over a slowly cascading groove from the Attractions, Costello initiates a biting takedown of the all-too-transactional world of sexual politics. As he snarls through lines like “A bright spark might corner the market in this year’s girl / See yourself rolling on the carpet with this year’s girl,” it’s hard not to buy into the portrait Costello paints, even nearly a half-century later.

As the album draws on, This Year’s Model continues to dish out highlights, and Costello continues to explore different shades of infectious animosity to similarly electrifying results. Take the song “Chelsea,” whose watertight upstroke groove and skipping guitar line are some of the most genius bits of songcraft on the album. Over this foundation, Costello sneers out one of his best and most hilariously mean-spirited songs ever. I’ve never been to Chelsea, but Costello makes me want to hate it.

No discussion of this record would be complete without discussion of the sexually-stunted rage of “Pump It Up,” which has over the years grown to become one of Costello’s signature songs. For such an infectious track, Costello’s lyrics are possibly the loudest internal scream on the entire album. The push-and-pull of hatred and infatuation is so boldly and convincingly pulled off that it becomes difficult to see where one begins and the other ends. And with its nimble use of musical metaphors, it’s one of Costello’s sharpest songs, period.

But these are just the singles. The deep cuts consistently impress as well, and oftentimes even steal the show. There’s the wildly catchy “The Beat,” whose choruses underline Costello’s lyrical themes of emotional paralysis. “Hand In Hand” comes at the record’s midpoint, where Costello’s romantic scorn gives way to the album’s most potent hint of emotional darkness. The Attractions take center stage on “Lipstick Vogue” with a ferocious and blistering performance. And the Byrds-esque beauty of “Lip Service” provides the record with a much-needed cooldown moment. This thing just has a rock-solid tracklist and delivers consistent quality for all but a few moments of its 35-minute runtime.

This Year’s Model is a hell of a rock album, but one that I’m slightly embarrassed to enjoy as much as I do. I don’t exactly personify Costello’s nerdy, sexually scorned viewpoint on this album, but there’s a sizable part of me that identifies with this record’s anger, and its lack of interest in whether or not that anger is misguided. It’s a cathartic-as-hell album, and a true high watermark in a discography full of quality releases. If for some reason you haven’t given this album a spin, do yourself a favor.

Rating: A-

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