I think I may just be in the small minority of people under the age of 35 who actually listen to Elvis Costello. A lot. It’s more than just a healthy appreciation for “This Year’s Model.” I find myself listening to him on my iPod or spinning one of his albums on vinyl at least seven or eight times a week.
This love of the bespectacled “angry young man” is virtually imprinted on my DNA. My father owns just about every single one of his albums that were released from approximately 1977 to 1987. As a precocious tween making the eight hour drive down to Santa Cruz for that hallowed tradition of the “family vacation,” my father would blast any number of Elvis Costello albums. I would sigh rather loudly, roll my eyes as an eleven year old is prone to do, put on my headphones, and turn up The Spice Girls on my Walkman. Nine years later, I see that my father was trying to actually infuse my youthful, defiant ears with an appreciation for one of the greatest musicians of later half of the 20th century.
I’ll admit that I’m biased. While I respect his later work, I’m almost always listening to that first trifecta–“My Aim Is True,” “This Year’s Model,” and “Armed Forces,” with an occasional dash of “Get Happy!!” or “Imperial Bedroom.”Yes, his tunes blend pop sensibilities like jangling guitar lines and whirling synthesizers with the snarling sneer of the jilted lover and ignored genius. Yes, he’s commendable for trying his hand at every single genre in the record store (with arguably mixed results): Jazz, pop-punk, roots-rock, bluegrass, hell, the man’s even classically scored a ballet adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (here’s to you, “Il Sogno”).
But the reason I keep listening when my peers don’t is his complete understanding of the female psyche like no other male singer-songwriter I know of.
Who would have guessed that the boy with the thick glasses would understand so completely the complicated modes of thinking and behavior that the woman enacts? Ladies, he sees what we do, he calls us out on our tricks, he senses and accurately pinpoints our insecurities and deepest fears, and distills it into words that read like literature and melodies that stick. And his voice can be so many things–whiny and full of complaints, belting and angry, deep and understanding, quiet to an almost whisper as he tells us why we do what we do.
But he’s never condescending. Nor is he patronizing. Nor does he attempt sympathy or even empathy. Instead, he just tells, sometimes his voice conveying mood, sometimes his guitar doing the job, often both at the same time.
Two of my favorite “Elvis Understands The Female Mind” tracks are back to back on “Armed Forces,” his second album with his legendary backing band The Attractions. “Greenshirt” is almost psychadelic with its (what sounds like) harpsichord, but at the same time its got this great quick, snappy, and strong four-beat drum line that punctuates the whimsy. At the same time, Costello croons almost in a whisper about a teasing lover who taunts him almost to insanity: “But you tease, and you flirt/And you shine all the buttons on your green shirt/You can please yourself but somebody’s gonna get it.” The way he accuses this girl of giving him the bait and switch is just really spot on. Yes, it might not paint women in the most flattering of lights, but how many women haven’t gotten involved with someone they weren’t so keen on just for attention’s sake?
He follows that track with “Party Girl,” a ballad haunting in the way Costello alternates between simple singing and heartfelt belt by the song’s end. Once again, he calls out a girl on her not-so-savory traits, telling her “They say you’re nothing but a party girl/Just like a million more all over the world.” Later he reveals the complications of the human heart and human sex drive, as he can’t seem to avoid her charms: “But I don’t want to lock you up and say you’re mine/Don’t wanna lose you or say goodbye/I’m the guilty party and I want my slice/But I know you’ve got me and I’m in a grip like vise. He’s not making a judgement call, he’s merely observing and confessing.
Listen, and maybe he’ll catch you by surprise and stun you with a one-liner so spot on you’ll stop to catch your breath and, simultaneously, press repeat.