10 March 2012

#96: Elvis Costello - (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes

Elvis Costello - (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
from My Aim is True, 1977

Elvis Costello's first record has a funny place in his discography . On the one hand, the whole record--from the masturbatory (literally) opening line of "Welcome to the Working Week" throught to (in the US version) the surprisingly sinister two-tone riffs of "Watching the Detectives"--sets up the archetypal Elvis Costello sound that would define his first three records and solidify his reputation as an "Angry Young Man," occupying the poppy sweet spot between the rage of punk and the hooky sensibilities of new wave and classic power pop.

On the other, the record is an anomaly--without the classic Attractions lineup (and in particular, without the keyboard of Steve Nieve, Costello's most important collaborator and the key contributor to the signature sound Elvis and the Attractions perfected on his second LP, 1978's This Year's Model), and featuring a much more straightforward, guitar-based sound than Elvis's later work. Produced by Nick Lowe, My Aim is True stands on its own as a beautiful, quirky pop record in Lowe's own vein, but simply isn't as rich and full of power tempered with sarcasm as his next two albums.

After almost 15 years of listens, I feel like I can hear the vaguely honky-tonk influences (brought out on the demo recordings included with subsequent American reissues) that Elvis shed with the Attractions, but that have always bubbled below the surface of his work. My Aim is True has always been a "what if?" record for me--what if Nieve's organ had been here, what if they'd played with a bit more power there?  Even Elvis seemed to realize the album's odd status in his own performances--when the Attractions played these songs, they changed in subtle but important ways, making them swing harder, bringing in odd tempos, jerky starts and stops. Elvis's most important acknowledgement of this sonic shift came at that famous SNL gig, when he decided (absolutely correctly, in hindsight), that the Attraction's new version of "Less Than Zero" just lacked the impact of his new, harder work.

The sole exception to the general air of incompleteness on My Aim is True is the song at #96, a funny little falling-out-of-love song cryptically entitled "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." "Red Shoes," which swings at its own, slightly less frantic pace from anything else in Elvis's early canon, sounds entirely finished and of a piece--a perfect pop moment (with jangly guitars and from an artist trying to bridge his pub rock roots to this "new wave," captured in amber. The song features a fairly conventional story about a girl who, in Gram Parson's words, "loved those bright lights more than she" loved Elvis, and is told from the perspective of an aloof narrator who seems to have acquired a certain ironic distance ("I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused") from the recent proceedings. I have no idea why the angels wanna wear his red shoes, or what the eponymous shoes have to do with "his side of the bargain," why anyone thinks he's "too old." What I do know is that this song has probably the greatest lyrical description in all of pop history of what it does to a relationship to watch your girl get flirty with all the other boys at the bar, with a clever phrase in the middle that was an early proposal for the name of this here blog:

I was watching while you're dancing away.
Our love got fractured in the echo and sway.
How come everybody wants to be your friend?
You know that it still hurts me just to say it.

Unlike nearly everything else on the record, "Red Shoes" actually suffered from its "Attractionification," as seen here in a 1977 Top of the Pops performance, with a sharper, angrier vocal from Elvis, a more propulsive backbeat, and Nieve's organ swirling a bit more than was usual. The wry detatchment of the original was perfect, and even a superior band could make no improvement.

This version, however, has its own wry appeal (and is sonically quite close to the original) and it's worth a quick listen.


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