Elvis Costello on the Endurance of ‘This Year’s Model,’ and What’s Gained in Translation With New ‘Spanish Model’

·21 min read

In 1978, Elvis Costello looked at a society’s collective eagerness to move on to the next thing and snipped, “This is your punishment: You’re last year’s model.” Stick around for another 43 years, though, and you may find out that this is your reward: There’s a sort of brand new version of his classic sophomore album. “This Year’s Model” has been retooled as “Spanish Model,” with stars from the various worlds of Latin music being brought in to replace Costello’s original lead vocals and replace them with their own, in one of the most unexpected and delightful musical wrinkles of a 2021 that would seem to have seen it all.

Costello’s partner on the project was Sebastian Krys, who had been known primarily for working with Latin musicians — and was in fact named producer of the year at the Latin Grammys — before he picked up his latest non-Latin Grammy for producing Costello’s “Look Now.” With Krys’ contact list, it wasn’t an insurmountable feat to sign up a guest list that includes Juanes, Luis Fonsi, Draco Rosa, Cami, La Santa Cecilia’s La Marisoul, Jesse & Joy, Morat, Jorge Drexler, Fito Páez, Gian Marco, Vega and others, representing Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Spain, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, Puerto Rico and, yes, even the mainland U.S. Underneath all these star turns remains the thrilling work accomplished in the late ‘70s by as great a backing band as ever lived, the Attractions, original producer Nick Lowe, original engineer Roger Bechirian and, of course – not completely scrubbed from the tracks — Declan McManus.

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Variety sat down with Costello and Krys to discuss the international boundary-crossing “Spanish Model” and the enduring power of the 1978 record it’s modeled after. Costello can wax humble, but only so humble when he’s discussing a song like “Pump It Up,” which he considers “the next best rock ‘n’ roll record made in England after ‘Satisfaction.’ I’ll say that right out loud.” He’ll just leave it to somebody else to say en espanol.

Variety: It would probably be wrong to call “Spanish Model” a tribute album, right? Because this is a strange project that’s well out of the realm of anything anyone’s ever done, really.

Costello: It’s well out of the range of tribute album. I mean, when I think of tribute albums, I think of something like [the 2019 Tom Waits salute] “Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits,” and Phoebe Bridgers’ great version of “Georgia Lee” on that record. Here was this young woman who I hadn’t heard before, and it was so affecting. That’s a proper tribute to that song; it’s a real re-interpretation. This isn’t the same. These singers are actually in the band with us— or with our older selves. All these people are in the Attractions. And that’s got to scare the hell out of some of those guys!

In announcing something like this, part of the fun of it is the shock value. I would think people in my audience who have been paying attention are used to surprises by now. But they’re going to want to know, how is it done? I don’t know of another record that takes this approach of taking original recordings and replacing the lead vocalist with other singers, and then more than that, in another language. But of course it’s going to be interesting to see the reaction from listeners of the guest artists who are providing the vocals, many of whom have no idea who I am. They’re going, “Why is my favorite singer singing on this record?” When they read the description of exactly what it is — 40-year-old backing tracks with my voice taken off and a new singer — it does sound crazy.

What was your initial reaction to the idea, Sebastian?

Krys: When he told me on the phone, I did pause for like 15 seconds, because I was just trying to process it, and then I thought to myself, “I better say something!” I guess my first thought was, “What are people gonna think?” My second thought was, “Okay, this is a classic record — danger.” [Laughs] And my third one was, “Well, this makes sense.” And why it made sense to me was because I met Elvis when he was working on a ballet, and one of my favorite records is “The Juliet Letters” [Costello’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet]. So it’s consistent with how I perceive him to be as an artist, which is believing that there’s no danger in creating art. There’s only danger in trying to please people and taking measured steps and being fearful. Music should not be treated as a museum piece; it’s not the same as a painting. It’s something that’s alive and that evolves.

The other part that was really important to me was the idea that I could get people to discover his work through these singers, because I discovered a lot of music that way. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” came out when I was 14 or 15, and that record was a gateway to me becoming a fan of African and West African music. So conversely, this has both functions, too, where maybe somebody who is an Elvis fan who has no interest in Latin music will hear somebody’s voice and say, “Let me hear what Draco or Juanes does outside of this,” and maybe that becomes a gateway to opening up a world of music for somebody.

What’s gained or lost in translating these songs?

Krys: I grew up in Argentina, listening to the Beatles, and I had no idea what they were saying. You just mimic the words and you feel the energy of the record. And later on when I learned how to speak English and found out what some of the messages were, it was a real revelation. One of the things that I love is that there are ideas on this record that I can’t point to any other songs that have the same ideas, that are set in the same way. It’s just like any literature — there are versions of that literature that are translated into every language so that people from other cultures can enjoy it. In music that happens once in a while — you know, “Yesterday” will be covered in every language. But I don’t think it’s happened with an actual album, and definitely not in this way. I think with such an iconic album, and an album that reached the U.S. and Europe but maybe didn’t reach Latin America, it’s an important journey to take.

I had been in so many situations where I was trying to turn Latin artists onto Elvis’s music. And a lot of what they would respond to me with is, “I love it. I wish I knew what he was saying.” … Lyrically, “This Year’s Model” is still very relevant today, what the songs have to say and how they say it. And this is a real opportunity to maybe turn an entire side of the world onto this great, great record, through these voices, and get these ideas out.

Costello: “This Year’s Model” doesn’t really have a lot of topics or themes. The songs are mostly about desire and how that relates to love; fashion and how that relates to particularly the male gaze toward women; and control, especially political control over us all. That’s pretty much the whole record, so I don’t think there’s anything there that somebody in another language would not have encountered. Now, it’s true to say that some of the way I said it might be a little obscure, because I’m using peculiar English idioms.

But I constantly fall in love with records in other languages — languages in which I don’t even know one or two curse words — because what you respond to is the humanity, the pride, the sorrow, the celebration. And in the voice, you can tell certain things, and the music gives you a clue to what that is. With this, I became really curious to see what would happen when these people, in another language and of another generation and sometimes another gender, explored what they would hear, and how Sebastian would then mix the instrumental performances around very different timbres, and the way the phonetics and the articulation of another language lands on the music. There were all these unknown factors that could only be thrilling to hear.

Did working on this make you reevaluate the original album?

Costello: With “Spanish Model,” sometimes I think the band actually sounds tougher, because in some cases, the vocalist sounds a little sweeter than me, and therefore, the band, by omission, sounds even more ferocious than before. And that’s really saying something. When you just have the high tone of the vocal from somebody like Nina Diaz on “No Action,” and then you can really hear that roaring low end from the bass and all that drumming, it’s scary.

I mean, I hope that people realize how good that group is. Not my part in the writing of the song so much; I know the songs are good. But that is some serious playing. As good as anything. When we made “Pump It Up,” I said, “Well, this is as good as ‘Satisfaction.’ Let’s see whether other people think that.” Well, no, it wasn’t as big a hit as that, but this is the next best rock ‘n’ roll record made in England after “Satisfaction.” I’ll say that right out loud. I thought that at the time when we did it. I thought, “What’s the other one [to compare it with] — you know, a riff-based song?” There isn’t one. What, something by T. Rex? Don’t make me laugh. Though “Jeepster” ain’t bad. No, I honest-to-God thought that when we made “Pump It Up.” I said, “This is the next one. And let’s see what happens.” And, well, I think Mick (Jagger) gets played at the rallies of dubious politicians. I get played at hockey games. I think we won. [Laughs.]

What was happening in the transition from working with another group of musicians on your first album, “My Aim Is True,” to first getting the Attractions’ sound down on “This Year’s Model”?

Costello: We made [his 1977 solo debut] “My Aim Is True” in six days. They released two singles from it. They both bombed, and they still put the album out. And then there was a bit of activity, and I became a professional musician and needed a band. And by the time we were ready to go to America for our debut, we also sensed that we should record another record. The band sounded so different to “My Aim Is True” that that just pushed us forward. But it didn’t leave very much time for a second thought about all the other ways that we might have done it — like, where would there be room for my suite based on Jules Verne or something? You know, we weren’t suddenly going to turn into Yes or ELP. We were into short pop songs. That’s what I thought we were doing.

And then by the time we came back from America, I was starting to get a bit self-conscious about this sneery character that I was being perceived to be. And thankfully, that kind of went away on the next record, and I sang relatively melodiously throughout “Armed Forces.” Some people that liked “This Year’s Model” didn’t like “Armed Forces” because it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll enough. Well, we were not playing that now; we’re playing this.

But just to isolate the tracks and hear how incredible the band is and how vivid it all is — take me out of it; just the other three guys playing — it doesn’t sound old-fashioned, unless I’m really kidding myself. Some records made in the ‘80s sound terribly old-fashioned, because they’re so imprinted with all the drum echoes, and there’s less actual sense of the people’s playing and it’s more about the effects that they’re being heard through — gated drum reverb and things like particular types of synth that have not dated very well. But (on “This Year’s Model”) we’re using fairly universal sounds: a good bass sound; a slightly unusual drum sound, in that the snare is kind of high-tuned, not flat and dead like most L.A. records were at the time; the guitar isn’t very big; and we’re using a Vox Continental instead of a Hammond or some other warmer instrument, and occasionally piano. It’s very austere, in some ways, even though it’s ferocious rhythmically.

I think the band sounds more aggressive in Sebastian’s mix than on the original mix, because my voice isn’t in the picture, which was always leading and drawing the ear with all of my attitude and sibilance in my voice. [He makes a grrr sound.] Now you hear somebody like Jesse & Joy sing “Living in Paradise” with a beautiful voice and you can hear how great the band are playing. You hear the bass. The bass is terrific on that track.

A few of the songs are allowed to go on longer than they did on “This Year’s Model” in these new mixes, which a certain kind of fan will relish.

Krys: Well, part of that was me knowing that record from front to back really well. When you’re a fan of records and you’re a kid, and that fade-out is going, you’re cranking it and trying to hear the very last piece of information, and you’re always wondering, “Well, what happened after the fade-out?” And then when I got to open up the tracks, as a fan, I figured, well, other people will appreciate knowing what happened, too.

Costello: There’s really only like two or three moments where that is applied. Bear in mind, after my first record, I had a clause in my contract that said I couldn’t have any more songs that were under a certain length, because there were two songs under a minute and a half on “My Aim Is True,” so [the record company dictated] all the songs had to be longer — they had to be three minutes. But we still tended to err on the side of brevity and being really concise, and Nick was making pop records. He wanted them on the radio, and he went for pretty logical fades. I think sometimes he snipped out repeats and things like that to get to the end. I wouldn’t mind betting that he snipped out one or two rounds of “Radio Radio”; if you compare it to the version (on the new album), Nick just took out one of the rounds where it’s saying the same thing, so he could get to the ending.

There’s a previously unheard outro to “Pump It Up” that has Mick Jones of the Clash playing an extra guitar part that had never been heard before, which is interesting.

With “Pump It Up,” I told Sebastian going into it that there had always been this dilemma about Mick — this struggle with the band not really understanding why I wanted Mick on the session. He didn’t play on the basic session. He came in and overdubbed. So the idea that I was asking Mick Jones from what everybody saw as a rival band to come and play on our record (didn’t go over well). … On songs like “Mystery Dance,” I made a point of playing only downstrokes on the guitar, like the Ramones, so it didn’t swing. Now, Mick’s playing a swinging part, like a Chuck Berry rhythm, and it’s only heard in the back end of it when the vocals are outgoing. For me it’s great, because you hear that he was alive to what I was playing, which was much more insistent. He’s push-pull with me, and it’s just another little thrill to the end of the record that nobody’s heard.

It’s practically a whole drum solo you hear Pete Thomas doing at the end of “No Action” now.

It’s the same with letting Pete play out at the end of that song rather than fading out on his fills.He’s burnt himself out on playing the song, and it’s what you call the cool-down. You can’t stop him. He wants to keep going. Well, I think that’s a good glimpse of what he was, which was this unbelievable machine of a drummer. To my mind, Pete should be way more acclaimed than he is. He’s such a modest fellow. He’s every bit as good as any of the great drummers of the last 60 years — every bit as good as Charlie Watts or John Bonham or any of those people. They’re all great as well, but he’s not a lesser drummer. There’s many drummers where I’ve heard people say, “Oh, he’s a great drummer,” and Pete could kill him at a hundred paces. But he’s so modest and isn’t trying to dominate; he’s always serving the music. Once or twice, he gets to kind of really step out like he did on this record.

With Pete, the person that he sort of pulled from, initially, was Mitch Mitchell (of Jimi Hendrix fame). In some ways I think he’s closer to Mitch than Charlie Watts. He’s like a mixture of those two drummers. He’s got the funk that Mitch Mitchell had… All these other much more technically dazzling drummers can’t hold a candle to him, because they’re too egotistical. And the good thing was that we had like a tremendously show-off bass player (in Bruce Thomas). And although we don’t get along, I would give him this: This is the best he probably ever played. I mean, he plays great on lots of our other records, until it sort of got too strained, but this is really as good as you can play in this kind of music. I mean, it’s startling, some of his stuff. It’s not like John Entwistle, but it takes the same amount of space that Entwistle did. You can’t tell whether there’s another guitar there some of the time. And I never played many solos in those days, so it freed Pete and I to really be the rhythm section a lot of the time. The rhythm lock is between the drums and the guitar, and then the bass is free to do all these accenting things. And Steve (Nieve) at this stage isn’t doing as much as he did later on, but he’s also in his own particular pocket, which is slightly ahead or right on top of the beat; he doesn’t lay back.

So it’s all those tensions. You can sit down and analyze every group and put them on an oscilloscope and work out how it is that they work. But this is a really great group. I mean, my contribution instrumentally aside, just as a three-piece group, there isn’t a better one. There’s many as good as this, but there’s not too many better.

You still play a number of songs from “This Year’s Model” on most of your tours, so it’s seemed like the album has continued to sit well with you over the years.

Costello: The songs are fun to play now because we play ‘em slightly differently. Davey (Faragher, bassist for the Imposters, the successor to the Attractions) has got very great respect for Bruce’s original parts, but he puts ‘em in a pocket where Pete is. Pete’s changed a lot from playing with Davey, and he’s much more American in his conception of rhythm now, in the sense that he does sort of sit back a bit more than he did then. Not because he’s tired. [Laughs.] He just feels it that way.

Do you have a solid feeling about where “This Year’s Model” sits in your canon?

Costello: I don’t really think like that. I like it always because it’s the first one with the Attractions, with whom I did all the early work, so at different times I sort of favor this one. Recently, I’d been listening to “Armed Forces” because we’ve got that boxed set that we put together, so I’ve been listening to that music and appreciating it. It’s hard for me to separate out, if you’re talking about the records. Yeah, there’s a certain approach to “Get Happy!!” which is undeniable. There’s a certain approach to “Blood and Chocolate” that’s undeniable. [More recently] there’s the way I have talked about “Look Now” being a combination of the feeling of “Painted From Memory” with the scope of “Imperial Bedroom,” though it really doesn’t sound like either of those records. It’s its own record, and so it should be. And then you’ve got things like “King of America,” and then we’re talking about “North”…

Krys: The funny thing about that question is, I was talking with Fito Paez, who sings “Radio Radio,” and mine and his entre into Elvis was “Mighty like a Rose” [from 1991]. So I think with Elvis’ body of work, it just depends on where you got in — when you got on the train and if you worked forward or backward from there. A lot of people couldn’t handle the left turns. But when “Mighty Like a Rose” came out, I was 19, and that record at that time made sense to me. I didn’t care about the early work. I worked my way to it eventually. But it’s interesting, because I think it’s all contextual. If you started with “My Aim Is True,” that’s that context. But Fito said the same thing: “I love ‘Mighty Like a Rose’!”

Producer Sebastian Krys, guest singer Nina Diaz and Elvis Costello - Credit: Paul Moore
Producer Sebastian Krys, guest singer Nina Diaz and Elvis Costello - Credit: Paul Moore

Paul Moore

How much did the singers on “Spanish Model” stick with a strict lyrical translation of the songs, and was that important?

Costello: [To Krys] You’re pretty happy with the veracity to the spirit of the lyric, right? I mean, Jorge Drexler and I talked on the phone for an hour and a half about the lyrics of “Night Rally” [a song about fascism], because he wanted to know about every image in the song — like, all the bizarrest psychedelic images in the bridge. He wanted to know about the chicken (“Get that chicken out of here”); he said, “Why did you choose it?” I said, “Because it’s a frightening image.” It’s like a Room 101 type of thing [i.e., the final torture chamber in George Orwell’s “1984”]. I explained all the background thinking — far more than was ever in the song — as best I could remember it, so that when he came to do the Spanish rendition, which was not anything like a literal translation, it had the same sense of dread.

I love hearing these people sing their adaptations of these songs with intelligence and humanity and sometimes a bit of wit. With “Radio Radio,” it would be ridiculous for Fito Páez to translate my lyrics literally. Bear in mind, my song was an exaggeration. Of course it would be kind of ridiculous to be railing against radio as our main enemy with so many things assailing us in media. My first draft of that song, “Radio Soul,” was a celebration of radio. I got out in the world and thought, “I don’t think that’s going to fly. Let’s say what we see now.” But I always sort of had my tongue in my cheek with that song, even though everybody took it very seriously. And Fito got the note of humor in it.

“Radio Radio” is like my “Peace, Love and Understanding,” if that makes any sense to you. Nick Lowe’s version of “Peace, Love and Understanding” [as its original songwriter, before Costello covered it] was very satirical. And as far as I was concerned, “Radio Radio” was like “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” by Frank Zappa. That’s why we did it on “SNL”: because it was a joke. Nobody ever saw it that way, because it was so furious-sounding, but it’s obviously a joke. You know, do I really think that we are being totally controlled by radio? Of course not! Some of the humor in these songs just went by people because of the way my face looks. Certainly it did then.

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