If nothing else, one of the things that the Seventies have given rock and roll is the chance for a new artist to regurgitate the most glaring of cliches and be considered by older critics who long for their youthful heyday (first cigarette, the first bout with sex, first visit the free clinic) as something in the vanguard of the movement, a "fresh and invigorating voice that outlines the future of rock and roll," and so on. Bruce Springsteen combines elements from Phil Spector records, old rhythm and blues tracks, and bare rock and roll with the lyrical free form-ism of Dylan, resulting in a pastiche of styles that sounds forced, histrionic and bone dry of motivation. Patti Smith wants to merge early Sixties rock, ala Stones, and "Louie Louie" with the legends of dead poets, sounding in the end merely silly. Tom Waits combines black jazz hep jive with Jack Kerouac and sounds stupid. The more jaded among us from this parade of pretenders are leery of anyone trying the same thing.
My Aim is True by Elvis Costello takes one by surprise. Like Springsteen, the backbone of Costello's music is old rock and roll. But apart from that, they differ radically. Springsteen has a tendency to stretch his material to the breaking point, pouring crescendo upon crescendo, verse upon verse, trying to create an epiphany that never culminates into prosaic glory. Costello, though, is stripped down to a vernacular toughness, and Costello's singing, similar to Springsteen's but more tactful, is full of buoyancy, emotion, and conviction, without any overkill. The songs number twelve in all on the disc, unusual for a rock disc, and each exists as polished lyrical gems of a cynical, penetrating working-class intelligence.
Costello's strength, a virtue that Springsteen, Smith, and Waits lack, is his ability to use rock cliches for their total value. Costello gets the heat to the meat instead of brandishing them like a set of museum pieces that one is supposed to bow to in historical awe and respect. The rockability stuff is done with a verve that equals Buddy Holly, his use of reggae captures the required gloomy, sinister mood, and his boogie material does a lot more than plot the course for the band. His lyrics, though, are imbued with a seventies sensibility, an awareness of absurdity works minor miracles with motifs that one might have considered as resources of comedic irony in this current,post-hip climate. The gifts would be nothing less than restoring to all the old rock and roll and pop music styles the capacity for emotional impact. Though not notable for originality or innovation, My Aim is True is a real piece of work, and Elvis Costello has an intelligence that can develop into something more complex and rewarding. My aim, for now, suffices as an excellent example of rock revisionist traditionalism.