Top 100 Album Review: #98 -This Year’s Model, Elvis Costello

Posh Outrage.

If you are going to criticize pop music, you need to make sure it is WAY better than what you are critiquing.

Rolling Stone’s Ranking: #98/100
My Rating: cropped-starcropped-starcropped-star

[INTRO]

The story behind the cover explains my biggest problem with the album itself:

Elvis Costello wanted to look angry for the shoot, so he requested the photographer play Hotel California by the Eagles. He couldn’t stand the song/album, and the immensely popular soft-rock music enraged his elitist tastes. After all, This Year’s Model is supposed to be a pillory against this exact commercialization of music.

Except there is only one problem: Hotel California is pretty good where This Year’s Model is faux outrage. Just because some BBC music critics didn’t take punk rock seriously, Costello decides he needs to write an entire counter-culture album about it. Marvin Gaye is out here singing about the difficulty of reintegration as an African American army veteran returning from war and Elvis Costello is singing about…the radio.

The cultural touchstone which brought this album into consciousness in the States was a SNL performance. Told not to do his single Radio, Radio, Elvis Costello starts with the preferred song of the music industry, and then stops the performance a few seconds in and starts doing Radio, Radio anyways.

You know, I get it somewhat.

As he sings the lyric I wanna bite the hand that feeds me, he is literally biting the hand that feeds him on live TV. While he had a massive fallout with the industry, his popularity soared from the stunt. It’s a nice David and Goliath story. It perfectly dovetails with the ethos of the punk rock movement.

But is making Lorne Michaels mad (which isn’t that hard to do) really what you want to hang your hat on?

This man gets mad at EVERYTHING.

It’s hard to seperate the cultural event with the source material itself. I find it hard to believe that the last track of this otherwise average but solid album would mean anything if not for that moment on live TV. But isn’t that the very thing that Costello rails against: pomp and circumstance driving sales rather than the actual music?

What’s a shame is the album grew on me. Is it great? No, but there are a handful of serviceable tracks that are imbibed with the punk-rock style. I could get down with that, but the album kept raising the stakes with its self-reverence. It couldn’t live up to it.

[BEST TRACK: Pump it Up]

I find it funny that I recently heard this song while standing in Sheetz waiting for my M-T-O burrito. Surrounded by pique commercialization, Costello’s Pump It Up was blaring from the speakers bouncing off the shelves of endless product. So much for sticking it to the system.

This is easily the most relatable, accessible, and distinctively “pop music” track on the album…which of course means it is the most successful, playable, and shareable song. Funny how that works.

Pump it up when you don’t really need it
Pump it up until you can feel it

[MOST UNDERWHELMING LYRICS: The Beat]

The worst thing that happened pre-listen for me was stumbling upon review after review adulating Costello’s amazing word play. “The Master of Double Entendres” I was told. It was believable: This Year’s Model is a neat play on how the music industry wants to pump out music like cars, so I listened to the words of the songs way more than I usually do.

Uh-oh.

Take The Beat for instance. There is a lyric that goes:

“Have you been a good boy
Never played with your toy?”

Beat. Boy. Toy. Wonder what that’s about?

Mae West one-liners do more heavy lifting than that. Is this what all the noise is about? BOY AND TOY!? I go to genius lyrics and find this:

Are these people brainwashed?

It’s not Elvis Costello’s fault that in 2022 people overhyping his lyrics made it an impassable threshold, but damn if I didn’t get mad waiting for some Robert Frost-esque moments that never came.

[BIGGEST CULTURAL IMPACT: Radio, Radio]

Already discussed, this is the song that Costello played rebelliously on SNL. While its a good song, I have a hard time taking it seriously. The stakes seem high: a nefarious group are trying to mind control us by gatekeeping important content. While his friends are concerned, most are just indifferent and look towards “the promise of an early bed.

What’s being kept hidden from us that is so important? Punk Rock Music. Oh. The very music that Elvis Costello makes. Hmm. Pretty self-indulgent, me-thinks.

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they’d never seen me

[CONCLUSION]

Don’t get me wrong: the album is alright, I just couldn’t stand the context and messaging being layered on so thick.

Other People’s Takes:

  • Altrockchick: “The same is true of pop music today—it’s feel-good formulaic crap designed to help you whistle your way through another pleasant day of existential boredom and forget about a world falling to pieces all around you.”
  • Prograchy: ” Still, for me,  This Year’s Model remains intensely compelling, a snapshot of a desperate genius trying to burn himself out before he could fade away.
  • Bored and Dangerous: Closing out with Radio, Radio¸ Costello saves the best for last on This Year’s Model. And for an album with so many great tracks, that’s really saying something for just how great Radio, Radio is.

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