Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Senior Service
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Coming up on three years ago now, I wrote of Elvis Costello in this space that “In some ways, everything since is a slight retreat from the raw wound of This Year’s Model.” I still agree with that; the difference now is that I am no longer sure this means everything else Costello has done since is somehow lesser than that record.
When I first got the next album Costello and the Attractions did, 1978's Armed Forces, I liked it but found it somewhat lacking; the fury and drive that animated This Year's Model was far from gone, but was sublimated into extremely well crafted pop music, a little fierceness lost through artistry and time. The sheer rage animating the likes of “Lipstick Vogue” was not so much in evidence now, although Costello was certainly not suddenly a happy person, or one possessed with much faith in the basic decency of humanity.
One of the tidbits that tends to get thrown around when talking about Armed Forces is that the working title was Emotional Fascism, but that's misleading. Costello says he wasn't working towards any particular theme but the album grapples with fascism of all types; emotional, political, social, sexual, etc. It does so with a kind of fastidiousness that's oddly fitting for its subject matter, and “Senior Service” epitomizes this approach, as well as the way Armed Forces loses the thrash and squall of its predecessor for arrangements that tick along like well made watches but still prove capable of surprise and pleasure after dozens of listens.
While the queasy “you-ou-ou”s from “Lipstick Vogue” are recapitulated in the repeated “oohs” of a pack of multitracked Costello's, most of “Senior Service” captivates via different tricks: A tightly wound and intricate structure and Elvis' markedly improved vocals. One of the real joys of This Year's Model was the choking, spittle-flecked fury of Costello's delivery, but here he is colder and crueler, more removed and more cutting, though less immediate. Before he cared but now he's just observing. Previously he was self-lacerating, perhaps above all else; on “Senior Service” and elsewhere he is only targeting himself to the extent that he's aiming at human nature, at everyone.
“Senior Service” is, like most of the record, a song of coldness and control. The singing is full of sibilance and tap-dancing, clipped consonants—the chorus lines “It's a breath you took too late / It's the death that's worse than fate,” with Pete Thomas nimbly hitting the downbeat around the vocals, offer a wholly different kind of enjoyment than even the similarly rapid “(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea.” There the speedy guitar figures and teeth-grinding organ whine added up to something jittery and hateful; here the stop-and-start drums and Bruce Thomas' supplely understated bass give you something you could actually dance to. Steve Nieve's organ is the only slight sign here of Costello's at the time rampant ABBA fixation, but like all of the other parts of “Senior Service” it only really works in unison; Elvis and the Attractions were, whether through careful recording or just experience, as tight as they'd ever be.
As you can tell from the “death that's worse than fate” line above, Costello was still writing lyrics that are more about being impressed with their own cleverness than attempts to communicate but that doesn't reduce the venom of “Senior Service,” a song that is after all about a man who says he wants “to chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket” all because “I want your company car / I want your girlfriend and love / I want your place at the bar.” At a trim 2:18 it's a miniature by the standards of modern pop but Costello packs as much incident and feeling into it as any song twice its length could hold. From the very first ascending organ bleeps “Senior Service” is very much the sound of the band and Costello in full control, every second carefully marshaled to make you feel that other man breathing down your neck.
And it's that less immediate pleasure, of being in the hands of masters of the form, that has caused “Senior Service” and Armed Forces to ever so slightly eclipse This Year's Model in my affections. The latter is still a ferocious achievement, but one so intense I can only pull it out every so often; neither I nor Elvis Costello are that young any more, and whether or not age brings wisdom it certainly brings moderation. “Senior Service” and its siblings are instead about more cynical kinds of disappointments and rages, more refined ways to slip the knife in. You still get the sense Elvis hates humanity, but now he's willing to let you dance as he strings you up.