Elvis Costello and The Attractions - This Year's Model (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Elvis Costello and The Attractions

This Year's Model (1978)


By 1978, punk rock, which was only two years old, had already started to produce offshoot genres. One of the most popular at the time was new wave. New wave is a tricky genre to define. On the one hand, you could say that it’s all the music that was inspired by punk but wasn’t actually punk itself. The only problem with this definition is that it’s also an accurate definition for post-punk, alternative, and indie rock. So what set new wave apart from these other genres? It’s hard to come up with a perfect definition because its definition was often changing, and sometimes a bit of a catch all. But, in general, new wave was lighter and breezier than punk, it was more pop-oriented than most of punk’s other subgenres, it usually involved synthesizers and other electronic elements, and it originally was a much bigger movement in the UK than in the US. At one point in the 80’s new wave became such a catch all term that it was virtually meaningless, coming to mean almost all new rock music including punk itself.

As I said last year for 70’s week, Elvis Costello’s debut album, My Aim is True, was mostly a pub rock album, a style of music loosely related to punk in that, like punk, pub rock hoped to reset rock ‘n’ roll to its earliest days, but which, unlike punk, focused on the bluesier elements of early rhythm and blues music. For his second album, This Year’s Model, only one year after My Aim is True, Costello adopted his backing band, The Attractions, who he would play with on all of his albums from this point until 1986’s Blood and Chocolate, and then again in 1996 for the album All This Useless Beauty. The original issue of This Year’s Model was only credited to Elvis Costello, even though The Attractions were on the album, so this was corrected on later reissues which do properly identify the artist as Elvis Costello and The Attractions. Once The Attractions had been established as Costello’s primary backing band, he did, supposedly, go back and rerecord My Aim is True with The Attractions, although these recordings have never seen the light of day. Once teamed up with The Attractions, Costello’s focus turned from pub rock to a style that was a little bit more punk rock, but was much more accurately described as new wave. With it’s chord-based style and heavy use of synthesizers, This Year’s Model was one of the earliest examples of the new wave genre.

This Year’s Model shines through with a much slicker pop style than My Aim is True. It starts off with the incredibly catchy track “No Action,” a song about obsessively calling a woman who is now with another man. I don’t think it escaped Costello that this is a bit of a creepy song that makes the speaker of the song come across as a stalker. “Pump It Up,” one of the songs released as a single off of this album, is a new wave song with heavy synthesizers and a dance beat. The lyrics are about sexual frustration, and are filled with sexual innuendo, most notably the song’s own title, which is a reference to masturbation. The song has been highly influential and has been sampled in Rogue Trader’s “Voodoo Child” and The Beastie Boys’ “Egg Man.” I think Blur’s “Crazy Beat” sounds pretty reminiscent of “Pump It Up” as well.

After “Pump It Up” comes “Little Triggers,” a song that sounds like it could have fit in nicely on My Aim is True with its slow, jazzy piano style. All through “Little Triggers,” I’m always afraid that, since Costello is rhyming words with the word “triggers” for the whole song, that he’s going to drop an n-bomb at some point in the lyrics like he did on “Oliver’s Army” on the following album, Armed Forces. Thankfully, he does not. “You Belong to Me” seems to combine the pub rock style of My Aim is True with the new wave sound of This Year’s Model, giving us a thrilling mix of old and new styles.

“(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” is probably the strongest single to be released off of the album. Much like punk has always had a relationship with reggae and ska, so did new wave, as “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” is a sort of new wave meets reggae tune, particularly with its intoxicating reggae-style bass line. “Lipstick Vogue” stands out as the most straightforward punk song on the whole album, particularly because of the furiously fast driving drumbeat underlying the whole song. Then “Night Rally,” a song that starts off very soft and somber, gradually devolves into pure chaos, only to be abruptly cut off at the end of the song without a real ending or fade out. The abrupt cut off was the end of the album for the UK version, but the American version of the album had one more song, “Radio Radio,” which was released in the UK as a non-album single. “Radio Radio,” a song raging against the commercialism of radio and the restrictive nature of radio that kept a lot of punk bands off the air, is one of Costello’s most popular and beloved singles, and certainly a stellar way to close out the album.

New wave would kick the bucket in the mid-80’s to be replaced by some of the early alternative rock bands. Costello and The Attractions would continue with new wave for the most part (with the exception of one country album) until they parted ways with each other in 1986, leaving Costello to start dabbling in the new alternative rock movement, as well as baroque pop and a number of other genres for the rest of his career. Pub rock is certainly what brought Elvis Costello into the public eye, but new wave was the genre that made him a household name with The Attractions. This Year’s Model remains one of his strongest new wave albums, and one of his best rock and even pop albums overall. Forty years later, it still sounds as strong as it ever did.