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My Aim Is True
Elvis Costello

Columbia 35037
Released: November 1977
Chart Peak: #32
Weeks Charted: 36
Certified Gold: 9/4/81

Elvis CostelloConsidering that the pop idols of the Seventies have, by and large, presented themselves as preening narcissists, transvestite exhibitionists, and (lately) self-mutilating nihilists, it's somehow heartening to find that the writer and performer of the toughest, freshest, most intriguing rock-and-roll album of an unusually lively season steps onto the world's stage as the definitive Twerp for Our Time. That Elvis Costello, whose debut album on Columbia is My Aim Is True, can affect a look that is closer to Woody Allen than to the departed King of Rock whose name he has had the effrontery to appropriate is, of course, merely what's going to get you to notice him. Fortunately, though, it's his music that's going to keep you hooked, and for once the music counts for more than the image, charming though it is.

Describing Costello's music in terms of influences is fun because they're such canny ones. But ultimately it does him an injustice, for (and this is something he shares with his namesake) the influences are so thoroughly digested, even at this early stage in his career (he's a wet-behind-the-ears twenty-two). One could say that at times he sounds eerily like Bruce Springsteen as well as Nick Lowe, who produced Elvis' albums; that his songs range from basic, blues-flavored ballads gorgeous enough to have been written by the Eagles; that he gets exceptionally rich-sounding backing from a basically stark instrumental lineup (there are next to no overdubs); and that his lyrics, which he claims are motivated solely by "revenge and guilt," are the most cruelly, tellingly misanthropic broadsides since middle-period Dylan. And yet, though all that is true, it doesn't come close to catching the feeling of the music, of conveying to you just how distinctive and intelligent the songs on My Aim Is True actually are.

Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True
Original album advertising art.
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You'll simply have to listen, I suppose. So check out the remarkable misterioso mood summoned up by "Mystery Dance" and "Waiting for the End of the World," the insinuating sexiness of a ballad titled "Allison," the straight-ahead rock-and-roll panache of "Less than Zero," or the sheer craftsmanship of an exhilarating Merseybeat Cowboy number called "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." What you'll hear is the work of someone who comes as close to being the Compleat Rock Star as anyone within recent memory -- driven, funny, and totally original. As one of Columbia's flacks has so uniquely put it, if he didn't already exist, someone would have had to invent him.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 3/78.

Bonus Reviews!

About the same time the king of rock put out the big light, we first heard an impressive New Wave import by a Buddy Holly look-alike calling himself Elvis Costello. On his debut LP, My Aim Is True, Costello has captured the rare synthesis that every Sixties rock band dreamed of -- the raw bluesiness of the Stones successfully mixed with a bouncy, early Beatles sound. My Aim Is True taps riffs that span two decades of popular rock. From "Mystery Dance," which sounds a tribute to his namesake's "Jailhouse Rock," to the Bowieish "I'm Not Angry," the album, penned entirely by Costello, effects a stylistic history of rock 'n' roll. Imagine Van Morrison with The Yardbirds produced by Phil Spector and you'll have an idea. Even better: Graham Parker meets Bruce Springsteen in Motown. Confused? Listen to My Aim Is True and tell us where you've heard it all before.

- Playboy, 2/78.

I like the nerdy way this guy comes on, I'm fascinated by his lyrics, and I approve of his rock and roll orientation; in fact, I got quite obsessive about his two cuts on the Bunch of Stiff Records import. Yet odd as it may seem, I find that he suffers from Jackson Browne's syndrome -- that is, he's a little boring. Often this malady results from overconcentration on lyrics and can be cured by a healthy relationship with a band. Since whenever I manage to attend to a Costello song all the way through I prefer it to "The Pretender," I hope he recovers soon. B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

This British writer used to write regularly for Rolling Stone for several enjoyable years. I knew it was time to throw in the towel in 1977 when my request to write about Elvis Costello was dismissed. At that time the United States didn't want to know about some obscure Buddy Holly impersonator with a name ripping off the King of Rock 'n' Roll performing songs in many cases shorter than those of even Presley himself. I stopped writing articles and started doing books. People could choose whether to buy them or not, but at least I could write about subjects I considered important.

Costello was and is important, and this album occupies a key place in rock history. Elvis married the tradition of popular songwriting with the attitude of the New Wave that had forsaken it. He represented the changing of the guard better than many of his punk contemporaries, who were famous in the UK but whose fame did not export.

"Less Than Zero" must be the only ninety-second song to inspire the title of a novel, in this case Bret Easton Ellis' look at mid-eighties life in Los Angeles. "Alison" contained the line that gave this record its name, and was the first major ballad by a New Wave artist.

If your copy of this album has a different cover than the one above, don't be surprised. According to Stiff historian Bert Muirhead there are at least eleven variations. The US version of My Aim Is True includes the British hit single "Watching the Detectives."

In 1987, My Aim Is True was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #28 rock album of all time.

- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.

Elvis Costello's debut album is a pop landmark that indicates the future that may exist for the spirit of punk in the wider genre of rock music. Backed by the American group Clover (featuring then-future Doobie Brother John McFee but not harmonica player Huey Lewis). Costello displays all the characteristics that would serve him throughout his career: a caustic wit he uses to savage himself and others, a broad imagination -- "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" is one of the best pieces of rock whimsy ever written, an unsentimental but compelling sence of romance ("Alison"), and an astonishing verbal facility, all enmeshed with a pop encyclopedist's musical knowledge. One of the greatest first albums in pop history. * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

My Aim is True is a phenomenal debut album notable for the Costello classics "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Alison," and "Watching the Detectives." As is typical for the best Costello albums it sounds as good today as it did when it was originally released. * * * * *

- Marc Fenton, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

In November 1977, just three months after the death of Elvis Presley, along comes a gangly, bespectacled twenty-three-year-old Brit clutching a red Fender Jazzmaster guitar, looking like some knock-kneed punk version of Buddy Holly, complete with the skinny tie and jacket that would become the de rigueur costume of late-1970s New Wave. The tiny black-and-white-checkerboard boxes of the record cover proclaim, ELVIS IS KING.

Like his fellow Englishmen the Sex Pistols and the Damned, Elvis Costello was very good at the bravado gesture early in his career. Yet underneath his punky pose lurked a staggeringly gifted songwriter who had made it his business to devour the history of American popular music, from Hoagy Carmichael to Burt Bacharach, from Hank Williams to Gram Parsons, from Louis Jordan to Smokey Robinson.

Working a day gig as a computer operator for Elizabeth Arden, Costello had cooked up a formidable songbook, but until Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson of Stiff Records signed him to their fledgling label, no London record company was swayed by Costello's talent. With members of an obscure Marin County, California, band called Clover -- a group that would form the basis of Huey Lewis and the News -- as well as producer Nick Lowe, Costello made his first album in six sessions for under $2,000.

My Aim is True -- reissued in August 2001 on Rhino Records as a double-disc, bonus-track-laden package -- was one of the great debut albums in the annals of pop music. Balancing the rage of punk with the formalism of the century's best songcraft, the album delivers passion and intelligence in equal measure. From the tender vitriol of "Alison" to the knowing arrogance of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" to the free-associative Dylanisms of "Waiting for the End of the World," Costello shows himself to be a budding pop master. And while at times he is almost too clever for his own good, a problem that will become more pronounced as his career progresses and his easy virtuosity becomes even easier, one cannot but be charmed by the young Costello's charisma. For a short time in the late 1970s, Elvis was indeed king.

- Adam Bresnick, Rolling Stone, 8/16/01.

Bespectacled and angry, the original talent who made nerd glasses cool shook up the landscape of rock by delivering punk attitude in a radio-friendly package. Paranoid, voyeuristic and loaded with insight beyond the young man's years, this phenomenal debut leaps off the stereo and grabs your attention with sex-obsessed cynicism and Dylanesque poignancy. You'll marvel at "Alison," while grooving to the bouncy "Watching the Detectives," a new wave anthem. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Anger has always been primary among artists' responses to the hypocrisy, perfidy, and treachery of the world -- it is the heartbroken soul's means of lashing out and escaping the trap of its own instrospective hall of mirrors. Dylan, in his white-hot days of the mid-sixties, spewed venom and romance often in the space of a single dense lyrical line. And, in 1977, along came My Aim Is True to harness another great artist's cutting bile into three-minute slices of accusation, condemnation, and lovesick bitterness.

Declan McManus grew up in a musical family, with a successful bandleader father, and was steeped in British musical tradition -- a fact that wouldn't become evident until a few years down the line. For the moment, on his debut album the newly named Elvis Costello (the surname derived from his own family) combined his dense, knowing lyrical slams with taut, guitar-based songs that delivered first a jab, then a hook, then an uppercut to a world that had apparently done him wrong.

Costello's image was disarming, with his overcuffed jeans, Buddy Holly glasses, and knock-kneed scrawniness. Listeners soon learned there was nothing guileless or innocent about the new Elvis (and it's hard to imagine today how audacious it was of him to take that name). My Aim Is True kicked off with the acerbic "Welcome to the Working Week," and it's worth remembering that Costello was still working his day job when he wrote this collection of songs. The sound is harsh, the vocals spit out of a frothing mouth, but already it was evident that Elvis was more than an angry punk. His chord progressions were deft, often sophisticated, and his lyrics were literate and biting -- and often slipped by too fast for Americans audiences to understand.

"Blame It on Cain" bops along nicely, until the listener realizes that the song is about patsies, losers, and fall guys. "Less Than Zero" is a real foot tapper -- and also an acerbic condemnation of British right-wing politics. And "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," the first song of the flip side in the old pre-CD days, is an excellent slice of sartorial boasting that kicks off with the immortal couplet "Oh, I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused." Around this time, Costello famously listed revenge and guilt as his main sources of artistic inspiration. The younger Costello took no poetic solace in bittersweet reflection. He was already an accomplished writer, capable of penning hook after hook, and for the moment he would spare the world none of his scorn.

Further reading on
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Attractions - Armed Forces

Album Review:
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Imposters - Look Now

DVD Review:
Spectacle: Elvis Costello

DVD Review:
Spectacle - Season Two

Article: "A Highly Selective
Basic Library of Punk Rock"

Elvis Costello Lyrics

Elvis Costello Videos

Elvis Costello Mugshots

The exception was "Alison," the one song in which Costello tempered his anger. Addressed to an ex-lover married to another man, "Alison" captured the sadness of the singer watching someone he once loved being crushed by the world. It was as though Costello could sympathize only with a fellow sufferer.

"Alison" was delivered in a shadow of the croon he would later adopt, and foreshadowed the nuance and sophistication to come. Costello spent the next five years releasing a set of musically inventive and lyrically brilliant albums, each of which built on the ambitious blueprint laid out on My Aim Is True. He would then assay guitar rock only sporadically, perhaps returning home to variations on his father's traditional band sounds that he heard in his youth.

My Aim Is True was voted the 80th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.

- Quinton Skinner, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.

Costello on the fuel for his debut: "I spent a lot of time with just a big jar of instant coffee and the first Clash album, listening to it over and over." The music doesn't have the savage attack of the Clash; after all, Costello's backing band was Clover, which would later evolve into Huey Lewis and the News. But songs such as "Mystery Dance" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" have plenty of verbal bite, and the ballad "Alison" is a poisoned valentine. Beginning with the line, "Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired," My Aim Is True quickly establishes Costello as one of the best lyricists of his generation.

My Aim Is True was chosen as the 168th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

My Aim Is True was recorded, before the recruitment of The Attractions, in six four-hour sessions in an eight-track demo studio in North London Costello now likens to a telephone booth. It says much for the standard of the songwriting that his debut stands up as a classic.

With future Doobie Brother John McFee laying down Byrds-like guitar licks, "Red Shoes" was an obvious single choice. It had been preceded by "Less Than Zero," inspired by British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, and the brilliant (and untypical) ballad "Alison," from whose lyric the album title had come. But it would take "Watching The Detectives" to make the necessary singles-chart mark at the very end of 1977. (Recorded with members of The Rumour, this track was included only on later reissues of the album.)

The overriding emotion of My Aim Is True was a lack of satisfaction, openly expressed by "Blame It On Cain" and "Mystery Dance," while "No Dancing" was a second song to equate dancing and sex. Producer Nick Lowe, whom Costello had followed round the country when Lowe was frontman with Brinsley Schwarz, added just enough studio fairydust to make this a "proper" record rather than another set of demos, but there was no doubting songs like "Mystery Dance," with its Jerry Lee Lewis vibe, would add a new dimension live when attacked by The Attractions.

Few of Costello's songs bar "Alison" have been covered, and this No. 14 album (in the UK), which retains its quirkiness today, suggests why. A heady combination of punk and quality songcraft, it remains unique even by Elvis' standards.

- Michael Heatley, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

(2007 30th Anniversary Edition) Here's another repackaging -- the fourth -- of Elvis Costello's 1977 debut. Outtakes and inferior demos round out Disc One. Disc Two offers a live show, Costello in a London pub in 1977, doing bristlier versions of the same songs. It's fun, but not so essential. But My Aim Is True is: The guy is twenty-three, married with a kid, basically a geek folk singer whose day job is computer programming for Elizabeth Arden consmetics, inspired by punk rock, looking for his way in. He got it: "Pay It Back," "I'm Not Angry," "Mystery Dance," the underrated "Waiting for the End of the World." These are the songs that got him off his computer desk and made the whole world want to argue back at him.

- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 9/20/07.

He wasn't the first singer who couldn't get no satisfaction, but few wore their bitterness like a badge the way the quintessential new-wave misfit did on his prickly, indelible debut.

My Aim Is True was chosen as the 75th greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.

- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.

Fueled up by "a big jar of instant coffee and the first Clash album," Elvis Costello's debut is more pub rock than punk, but the songs are full of punk's verbal bite, whether on the murder mystery "Watching the Detectives" or the very sincere "Waiting for the End of the World."

My Aim Is True was chosen as the 430th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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