‘My Aim is True’ and the Art of Cerebral Punk

Elvis Costello always felt a bit out of place. A late-comer to the original golden era of punk who looked like a dorkier Buddy Holly and sang like Roy Orbison with a bad cold, Costello confounded in his context. Compared to the intentional stupidity or wildness of contemporaries like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, Costello felt more cerebral. Even when he was rebellious, becoming the first artist ever banned from “Saturday Night Live,” it was only because he stopped playing a song he was scheduled to play. At the beginning of his career, Costello was able to combine his cleverness with the intensity and craft of a frustrated nerd. No album showcases this better than his debut, “My Aim is True,” an album that turned 40 this summer and challenged the very idea of what punk could be.

“My Aim is True” was the product of half a decade of Costello’s toiling in the British music scene, working a variety of day jobs and playing pub rock, an early variation of punk, at night. Recorded with the backing band Clover, which more or less became Huey Lewis and The News, “My Aim is True” sounds like far less campy and far more emotional punk. But Costello took from a wide variety of genres, especially blues and early rock. Throughout the album, he sounds more like the last of the initial wave of British Invasion than punk. While the punk elements are all present—the fast guitars, Costello’s delightful snarl—the real unifying feature of “My Aim is True” is the way every song allows Costello to show off his songwriting craft.

Lyrically, few artists have ever been as clever on an album as Costello was on his debut. While the album was about sexual and political struggles, Costello’s biting humor and nerdy aesthetic make the album’s tone one of dark comedy. Growing up, I was always fascinated by the way Costello used “dancing” as a euphemism for sex. Costello is able to play on the dancing theme throughout the album, like on “Mystery Dance,” where he attempts to figure out how to pleasure himself, but nobody seems to know. That’s the tip of the iceberg. From the brilliant masturbation joke that serves as the opening lyric (“Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired”) to “I don’t know if you’ve been loving somebody / I only know it isn’t mine” to my all-time favorite line: “I said, ‘I’m so happy I could die’ / She said, ‘drop dead’ and left with another guy,” Costello constructs genius wordplay and makes it feel effortless, even on the more political tracks. On the masterpiece “Less Than Zero,” Costello satirizes the duplicity of Oswald Mosley and his fascist movement as secretive teenage sex, wherein Mosley attempts to hide his racist past and other character flaws from the public, much like teenagers would hide sex from their parents. The only point on the album when he stumbles is in the second verse of the otherwise spectacular “Waiting for the End of the World.” He sounds like he’s cramming too much into half the lines. Aside from this section, “My Aim is True” is brilliant lyric-driven music, like that of Springsteen or Dylan, although where Springsteen was descriptive and Dylan was poetic, Costello was darkly comic.

“My Aim is True” additionally distinguished itself by being so different from its genre or anything mainstream at the time. Dominant artists like Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Wonder traditionally released albums that had more cohesive sounds, but Costello was more eclectic. Even in punk, the speed and friendliness of bands like the Ramones contrast with Costello’s intensity and musicality. Costello was one of the first artists to ever create an album so varied. While pub and punk rock were the most prominent, “Mystery Dance,” “Blame It on Cain,” “Pay It Back,” and “Sneaky Feelings” all have blues elements, and “Mystery Dance” also borrows heavily from ’50s rock. “Watching the Detectives” even has reggae elements. More than anything else, however, “My Aim is True” brought power pop and new wave to the mainstream with songs like “Alison” and “Less Than Zero.” His sound was so new that critics were using these terms just to describe him. While his subsequent albums had a diminished energy level and musicality, “My Aim is True” stands as a monument to what Costello could accomplish on every level of his craft.

While there’s some debate on just how well “My Aim is True” stacks up against the rest of his discography, it is nonetheless an undisputed classic. Along with bands like the Talking Heads and Blondie, Costello helped make New Wave popular, and bands like the Cars and Cheap Trick rode the new structures of power pop to prominence. But while it had immediate influence, Costello on “My Aim is True” can be heard throughout the punk rock revival movement. While the leaders of the movement, Blink-182 and Green Day, drew more from the other prominent punks of the period (Blink mostly from the Ramones and Green Day from the Clash and Sex Pistols), Costello can be felt on cerebral rock bands’ albums, like early Weezer and Fountains of Wayne (if you doubt me, compare “Bright Future in Sales” to “Less Than Zero”). Through sheer craft, Costello was able to make a timeless classic.

—Edward M. Litwin can be reached at edward.litwin@thecrimson.com.

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