While the punk movement raged in the late ‘70s, one British singer-songwriter was channeling his frustrations into a blend of Buddy Holly-style pop music and punk soul to create what would become one of the best known new wave albums out there. Working as a data entry clerk, Elvis Costello called in sick to his day job in order to rehearse and record his debut album, My Aim is True. The album serves as a collection of life’s most relatable frustrations, marked by pretty melodies and what would become Costello’s signature verbal calisthenics.
For an album that is held up as one of the best debuts out there, My Aim is True certainly had a rough start. Since it was initially only released in the UK and available in the US as an import, American fans were slow to come to the record, while lead singles “Less Than Zero” and “Alison” were both released with very little success in the UK. However, the album eventually gained traction and popularity in England. His American fanbase boomed later that year, after a scandalous decision to play the song “Radio Radio” on Saturday Night Live got him banned from the show for twelve years.
My Aim is True kicks off with “Welcome to the Working Week,” an uptempo track that sets the playful-yes-frustrated tone for the album. The song recognizes the overall frustration with adult life, in which you’re stretched too thin at work and everything is moving too fast for you to enjoy to its full potential. “Welcome to the working week/Oh, I know it don’t thrill you/I hope it don’t kill you,” Costello sings, giving us a hint about what tongue-in-cheek lyrics are hiding behind the melodic instrumentals.
After introducing the album with “Welcome to the Working Week,” Costello moves things along with an interesting taste of country. “Miracle Man” and “No Dancing” both employ a bit of twangy guitar to explore the dissolution of relationships, while “Blame It on Cain” takes on our overall need to have a scapegoat for life’s problems. “It’s nobody’s fault/But it just seems to be his turn,” Costello sings, pointing out our incessant need to have a focal point for our frustrations.
My Aim is True is home to “Alison,” one of Costello’s best known songs. “Alison” puts Costello’s usual bright frustration away in favor of a melancholy pop song about disappointing someone in spite of the best intentions. Costello explored the story behind his iconic track in his memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink:
I’ve always told people that I wrote the song “Alison” after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.
Despite its initial lack of popularity, “Alison” was later recognized as one of the best pop songs by the likes of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, as well as a slew of other artists.
While songs like “Sneaky Feelings,” “Mystery Dance,” and “Pay it Back” continue to explore the complicated emotional nature of relationships and dish out subtle sexual innuendo, the second half of the album also takes on Costello’s anti-fascist leanings. Debut single “Less Than Zero” was inspired by the former British Union of Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, who Costello had seen completely deny his racist past in an interview. Costello isn’t big on subtlety here; the song openly addresses Mosley in the first line: “Calling Mr. Oswald with the swastika tattoo…” Costello begins, continuing to refer to him by name in the ensuing verses. In the liner notes of the My Aim is True re-release, Costello described “Less Than Zero as “more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument.” Regardless, “Less Than Zero” launched Costello’s tendency towards criticizing totalitarianism and fascism throughout his career, serving as the predecessor to later songs like “Night Rally” and “Goon Squad.”
While My Aim is True had a rocky start, it was named Album of the Year by Rolling Stone in 1977 and is still celebrated as one of the best debut albums ever forty years down the line. Its catchy melodies, clever lyrics, sneaky sexual overtones, and general discontent all came together to form a new wave album that had a lasting impression on Costello’s lengthy career and the music scene in general.