There are times, in a musical artist's career progression, when a listener can hear a new record by an artist, and immediately sense a drastic change in style, for better or for worse. One can feel when an artist has come out with a record that is clearly a gigantic step upward; a personal artistic achievement. Such is the feeling I experienced from my very first listen of Armed Forces, the brand new Elvis Costello record, and undoubtedly, one of the finest albums to appear in a long while.
Elvis Costello has had the same band for all three of his albums, and Nick Lowe has been the producer throughout. Yet, on this LP, Elvis has transcended himself completely; the album is a flawless display of sound recording. The melodies are astoundingly good, and each tune reaches out and grabs you in such a way as I have not felt in a longtime. The lyrics are his best ever — bitingly cynical, sarcastic, humorous, and dangerous words for today's world. The production is utterly innovative. Nick Lowe seems to have made maximum use of his studio skills, creating tremendous feelings with some expert mixing. And the band, Steve, Bruce and Pete, seems to be perfectly in harmony with the musical goals Elvis is pursuing. And on top of all that, the cover is a striking piece of modern art.
Although I deplore the use of such undefinable terms as "punk rock," or "new wave," Elvis Costello's first two albums, My Aim is True and This Year's Model, both seem to have been placed in one of those two categories. Both of those albums arc excellent, and hint toward what was to come.
On My Aim is True, his highly acclaimed debut LP, the music possessed a raw quality about it; the production was very simple, the songs were all very short And up front pieces, and the lyrics were potent. But people who were willing to give the album a listen found that the tunes they heard had a crude catchiness to them; they stuck out in your mind. You'd find yourself humming them all day if you had just played the record.
Elvis followed this up with This Year's Model, another excellent album, but not that giant step upward he has now achieved. The songs on this album seemed a little less hummable, but by the same token, they were a little less raw too. Nick Lowe was hinting towards a more elaborate production, and to Costello fans, the album was by no means a let down in any way.
And now, all of a sudden, Armed Forces is here. The original title had been Emotional Fascism, but CBS records initiated a change. They too must have sensed the sales potential of this masterpiece, and for purely commercial reasons, asked for a "lighter" title. In fact, they are promoting this album heavily, and their ad campaigns ask the presumptuous question: Where are you during the Big One? And by virtue of the fact that Elvis consented to the title change, one can assume that he is agreeable to expanding his sales appeal.
The most important thing that should be said right away about the album is that it is not punk rock. It is not new wave. It is not one of those new albums that contain 40 minutes of some guy yelling into a mike singing some annoyingly loud unmelodic tune. Unfortunately, many people have shoved Elvis into that category without even giving him a listen, and won't even hear this album. For those of you who are willing, do so. You won't regret it.
Every song in the album is extraordinarily memorable. Each one contains some hook, some riff, some chorus that will stick out in your mind and affect you. There is no filler on this LP; every song is a winner.
To highlight certain songs on the album for this review would be futile. Besides being memorable, the album is tremendously diverse. There are slow, haunting songs, with eerie synthesizer riffs, like "Green Shirt," or "Chemistry Class." There are jazz influenced R & B songs, like "Moods for Moderns." There are up tempo rockers, like "Oliver's Army," and "Accidents Will Happen." And there are piercing, frightening songs, like "Goon Squad," or "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding."
Besides experiencing a tremendous change in his writing style, Elvis has experienced a change in his singing style. His singing on Armed Forces is phenomenal. He sings each song differently, to reflect the feeling he is trying to create. And he sings each song with intensity and great feeling.
If I seem to be overreacting, then all I can say is go and hear the album. From start to finish, it is a testimony to the skill of one of music's newest geniuses. And if Elvis is capable of advancing this much with just three albums in two short years, then who knows what the future holds for him?
And there's a bonus. For the first 200,000 copies printed, a special EP will he inserted, containing two songs from My Aim is True, and one new one, performed live at Hollywood High. The live versions of "Alison," and "Watching the Detectives" are faithful to the originals, while "Accidents Will Happen" is very different from the studio version on Armed Forces. By the way, it's no coincidence that the EP contains Elvis's two most well known songs: CBS is making this the big one.
It you want to see where rock is going, then I believe you should hear Armed Forces. If you like punk rock, or new wave, then I also believe you should hear Armed Forces. And if you love music, but you hate punk rock or new wave, then you should also hear Armed Forces. But you don't have to take my word; sooner or later, you'll discover the genius of Elvis Costello.