Elvis Costello: Lipstick Vogue
here are some songs you just hope aren’t written about specific people. I realize Elvis Costello was having a bit of a bad time while writing This Year’s Model, angry and in love with the wrong people and lashing out. But knowing all that doesn’t make the contents any less surprising the first time you hear them. Once the opening drum thrash (with added quasi-Eastern keyboard motif) subsides into that relentless guitar almost riff, with the bass hanging menacingly between two notes, Elvis launches into an opening tirade worthy of quotation in full:
Don’t say you love me when it’s just a rumorAll of which is, of course, spat out at high velocity over the trademark Attractions flurry, the vocals sounding like they’re trying to keep up with the instruments and vice versa. At this point it doesn’t matter, if ‘Lipstick Vogue’ is about a real person, whether they were right or wrong, or whether Elvis was. There is hurt here. And rage. And alienation. And married to this, emphasizing it, guiding it, are the Attractions, pushing the pop song to what was, at the time, the absolute edge of velocity and venom while still retaining the ragged outline of the form.
Don’t say a word if there is any doubt
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You’ve got to cut it out
You say you’re sorry for the things that you’ve done
You say you’re sorry but you know you don’t mean it
I wouldn’t worry, I had so much fun
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
It’s almost funny how the chorus line comes close to slowing down, Elvis slurring the word ‘you’ sickly until it becomes “Yooooooooou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou”, filled with monstrous levels of reproach. That is the sound of a man ejecting toxins from his body as a defence mechanism, articulating his strain and betrayal (“You say I got no feelings/This is a good way to kill them”), the sound of a man teetering on the edge of complete inhumanity and barely able to grapple with the events, and the person, he sees as the causal agent.
This Year’s Model as a whole, singles included, is one of the most vicious purgations pop has seen, what with Elvis comparing romantic obsession to speed addiction in ‘Pump It Up’, and ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ wallowing in its queasy keyboard and syncopated shuffle, ruminating about coldness and rejection (“I don’t want to check your pulse”). But ‘Lipstick Vogue’ is This Year’s Model’s dark heart, devoid of even the tacit admissions of guilt and remorse found elsewhere.
This album, and this song, is why we still think of Costello as an ‘angry young man’ years later: why, no matter how many abominations he produces, we can remember him fondly as having articulated nigh unspeakable emotions in the context of some of the finest pop music. Later ‘angry’ songs (‘Lover’s Walk’, for example) are just as good, but they lack a certain level of cruelty and self-loathing that ‘Lipstick Vogue’ and its ilk had. In some ways, everything since is a slight retreat from the raw wound of This Year’s Model.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2003-12-18