Listen to this track by bespectacled angry young man and original hipster singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. It’s “Miracle Man”, a deep cut as taken from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True.
This song is in very good company with those that Costello worked up while he was an early signee to the nascent Stiff Records label. This was after seven years of graft, taking the then twenty-two year old songwriter from his teenage years as a member of pub rockers Flip City to when he was christened with his Kingly moniker upon hooking up with Jake Riviera at Stiff.
And maybe it’s because Costello had spent so many years making demos, and having them sent back to him by record companies, that his debut is a compendium of tales of frustration and insecurity marked by a fierce intelligence and the swagger of youthful ambition. With this song, that theme carries through pretty well. And on the surface, it comes off as a guy who’s attached to someone who doesn’t really appreciate his efforts in the love department. But, that really is just on the surface of things.
Come to that, there were a lot of things on the surface that could divert attention away from the whole picture where Elvis Costello was concerned by 1977. For instance, he was often erroneously lumped in with the London punk scene. But instead of kicking it with the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, he was a married office jockey, listening to records by Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, David Ackles, and the Band, all the while writing songs of his own while on his daily commute to a not-very-interesting job as a data entry clerk. This was not very punk of him, maybe. And yet, he sort of was punk in his own way. He bunked off work in order to make this record that’s as much informed by the Byrds as it is by The Clash. This was a bold move in 1977 London.
Another key musical texture on the album as a whole is a rocked-up Phil Spectre-style girl group sound, which is ratcheted up on songs like “No Dancing”, “Sneaky Feelings”, “Pay It Back”, and “Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes”. And like those other tunes thematically speaking, “Miracle Man” concerns itself with the sinking feeling that one is punching above one’s weight when it comes to love. “Miracle Man” serves to help set this emotional tone around the tensions of being young, frustrated, in lust, but not having a compass for dealing with the rigours of an adult relationship.
As such, it would be a mistake to think that this song is just about a woman with a ten-inch bamboo cigarette holder and black patent leather gloves breaking some poor guy’s balls. Well, it kind of is about that, even if it conjures up a somewhat cartoonish image of a woman rather than a true picture of who she is, and what she really wants from him. So in the end, it’s really less about the woman, and more about the guy in the picture than perhaps the writer intended. It could only have been written by a guy in his early twenties.
But, it’s that very naivete that helps to make it a great rock ‘n’ roll tune, along with how many pop music traditions it borrows from that make it musically compelling; power-pop, country-rock, and those aforementioned girl-group textures all get a look-in. And really, that can be said about the whole record, which is laced with youthful petulance and arch-sarcasm (“everybody loves you so much girl, I just don’t know how you stand the strain” – brilliant) but also with joie de vivre too that makes that outpouring of bile so cathartic. That is its charm even today, and may be the reason it is associated with ’70s punk, even if it was not formally connected to any related scene.
Costello would expand on his sound and on the scope of his songwriting range very soon after My Aim Is True hit. He would accomplish this first by putting together his formal backing group The Attractions in time for his first supporting tour of the record. With their significant instrumental support, he’d go on to create work that deepened the connections with even more musical traditions outside of the expected rock spectrum. And he’d deepen the emotional complexity on a songwriting level, too. To some, these progressions would make his work less “rock ‘n’ roll”, since it would lose its youthful naivete found so overtly on this song, and on his debut as a whole. He would never really make a record exactly like this again, which also adds a layer to its value. But, even angry young men have to grow up sometime, especially as their audience grows up too.
To learn more about Elvis Costello’s early career, check out the excellent liner notes for My Aim Is True featured in the 2001 Rhino re-issue as written by the man himself to be found on the Elvis Costello wiki.