With his third album, Armed Forces, Elvis Costello continues to chart new directions for rock beyond the swamps of disco and the scabrous implosions of punk. His work — a well-balanced mix of personal obsessions, near-paranoic politics and complete mastery of the perceived pop tradition — is unparalleled in its invention and importance.
Armed Forces is an advance for Costello, both lyrically and musically, an advance which explodes the categories of punk and New Waver he's been squeezed into. If his two previous records, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model were quickly done, almost tossed off, Armed Forces is the sculpted product of more than a month in the studio. On both earlier records his backing (first by the near anonymous Clover, next by his current hand, The Attractions) was raw, untutored and angular, owing much to the garage-band tradition of ? and the Mysterians and the Electric Prunes. Armed Forces is different. For all his nonchalant parodies of the mode (cf. Pure Pop for Now People), producer Nick Lowe is a devoted practitioner of the pop-song. Each song is meticulously crafted and layered: the songs come to deliberate, clever conclusions rather than jangling halts or simple fades as on the preceding albums. There's lots more synthesizer, interesting percussion and inventive vocal arrangements. In fact, in its melodic and harmonic complexity, Armed Forces is the closest current approximation to the pop gems at which the Beatles once excelled. It's no surprise, then, that allusions to the Beatles should crop up all over the record: the ending to "Party Girl" that comes straight from Abbey Roadm say, or the "Penny Lane"-ish synthesizers that close "Green Shirt," or the echoes of "Nowhere Man" on "Busy Bodies." It's not simply irony that accounts for the album's ending with a moving cover of Lowe's "Peace, Love And Understanding."
If Armed Forces' dense sound crammed with pop touches has little to do with punk, Costello's lyrics in their wit and subtlety are also strangers to punk's angry nihilism. Not that Costello's own well-publicized anger and vengefulness have been stilled. It's just that the targets have gotten bigger and the solipsism of his earlier songs has opened up into a political context, albeit a scary, bleak one. That's obvious on songs like "Goon Squad" ("They'll never make a lampshade out of me." he sings) and "Oliver's Army." But it's also underneath songs like "Two Little Hitlers" and "Green Shirt," songs that initially seem to focus on two people but also refer metaphorically and otherwise to institutional settings. Costello's suggested title for this record was Emotional Fascism which is why a lover in "Chemistry Class" can sing a refrain about Final Solutions. Dark, brooding and honest. Armed Forces is a triumph.