"I just don't know where to begin," Elvis Costello sings at the beginning of Armed Forces, his new album. It's as if he's relieving himself of an unbearable burden by making a record; yet the music is melodic, even lush.
The tone gets harder when he gets to the chorus: "Accidents will happen, but only hit and run / Used to be your victim, now I'm not the only one..."
The tension between captivating melodies and incisive, pithy lyrics runs through all of Armed Forces and holds it together. Costello's last record, This Year's Model (one of the very best rock and roll records of the decade), was music of furious release — unrelentingly loud and rhythmic, with lyrics that cut to the bone. Here was a rocker who not only hadn't let the realities of the music industry co-opt his capacity for hatred; he hated with the intensity of someone who really cared.
Armed Forces is a more distanced work; that is, less overtly savage in its world view. The lyrical broadsides of This Year's Model have been honed into a more concise, epigrammatical form. Certain phrases linger in your head and nag at you long after the songs have kicked in:
Starts like fascination
Ends like a trend
It's the death that worse than fate
It's the breath you took too late
There's never been a how do you do
There's never been an ending
Soon you'll be along with someone else
And I will be a stranger just pretending
It's the words that we don't say
That scare me the most
Costello races through so many personas, often in the same song, that it is difficult at first to get a grip on his themes beyond the phrase "emotional fascism," which was to be the album's original title. What emerges is more oblique and complicated than that.
Costello's characters live in a world of extremely limited choices — the alternatives being roughly divided between joining forces with those who hold out the promise of emotional fulfillment through the acquisition of power over others and the frenetic, futile games that people who try to keep their freedom get sucked into.
The stances he takes range from amusement to horror. "Oliver's Army" is a calliope-like singing commercial for mercenaries, while the teenager in "Goon Squad" is utterly terrified to find himself in charge of a gang of things. Nick Lowe's production heightens the drama by musical understatement, shifting the emphasis from Costello's raise-the-dead guitar to tense, controlled lines from the band's keyboard-bass and drums rhythm section.
The frustrating irony of all this is that, while it is his hardest album to appreciate, Armed Forces is easier to listen to than This Year's Model and will therefore receive more airplay from the complacent cowards who program American radio.
Costello must realize this, for he has saved his juiciest contradiction for the end of the record, putting the album's most hopeful lyrics (written by Nick Lowe) to its most violent music. The band thunders away with pure roadhouse frenzy and Costello sings as if possessed by the deranged ghost of his namesake:
As I walk through this wicked world
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself
Is all hope lost