Since emerging from the English music scene in 1977, seemingly coming from nowhere, Elvis Costello is one performer who lived up to the labels people conveniently dropped upon him.
The way he looked, acted, wrote and sang seemed to fit whatever you wanted to call him — punk, New Wave, angry man, nerd, whatever. With Armed Forces — Costello's third album, just released — it's time to drop the labels and give him his due as both performer and writer.
What we have here is a curious mixture of political songs, statements on society and, of course, Costello's favorite target, women. All with a sound that has radically changed from his earlier efforts. With a few listenings, however, one can see that the sound may be different, but the song remains the same. Costello hasn't really changed.
The melodies and hooks on Armed Forces are as catchy as ever, all with lyrics that have the subtlety of a snake's venom-filled bite, but Nick Lowe's production of this album is more lush than other efforts.
The first thing that strikes a listener is that it is now hard to separate Costello or Lowe from this work. We must look at Costello and Lowe as not merely an artist and a producer, but collaborators. On the album there is even one song that was written by Lowe for Brinsley Schwarz about four years ago, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
But let's start at the beginning. There is a seven-inch disc that was recorded live at Hollywood High and is included with the first 200,000 albums that shows the listener something is up. "Accidents Will Happen," which is also the first cut on Armed Forces, and "Alison" are unusual for one reason — Costello does not play guitar on either track. Even on the six-minute version of "Watching the Detectives," on the flip side, Costello plays just a few licks.
What's going on here? Perhaps Costello is contrasting the simplicity of the live sound with what might be considered a lush studio effort on the actual album. Maybe he's taking attention away from himself, forcing the audience to focus on the band. But the best answer emerges after a listen to the album: Costello seems to be more concerned with his voice, vocal expressions and inflections than with his guitar playing.
For example, on "Oliver's Army" we have Costello's multitracked voice layered upon itself several times, as are many other songs on the album, something not done to a large extent on his first two albums.
The first few lines of "Big Boys" start off with Costello singing a capella. On "Goon Squad" we have Costello experimenting vocally once again, singing out of one speaker, then another. It is Costello's voice and the many variations in which it is used, rather than his guitar, that becomes the instrument he is playing.
Throughout the album Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas's drumming are superb. But it is Steve Naive's keyboards that help make this album flow together in a cohesive unit.
Standouts on this disc include virtually everything on the first side. "Accidents Will Happen," a different, faster version than the extended-play cut, is the standard Costello putdown of the teasing woman. "Senior Service," about corporate politics, features nice keyboard work by Naive. "Oliver's Army," which sounds like a musical ad for mercenary soldiers, is an intense political thriller about people who slay for pay.
"Big Boys" is another old Costello theme, the guy who tries to pick up women only to be put down in the end. "Green Shirt" is another military song, couched in terms of a coquettish woman. It brings to mind old Beatle melodies with lyrics only Costello could write. "Party Girl," the last cut on this dizzying first side, is Costello's ultimate lament, indecision over women. "Don't want to lock you up and say you're mine," he sings, "But I don't want to lose or say good-bye." It is a touching song.