Elvis Costello just keeps getting better. His first album, My Aim Is True, was one of the most impressive debuts of 1977. Its followup, This Year's Model, made nearly every critical top 10 list of 1978, and now, with Armed Forces (Columbia JC 35709), the man may have topped himself again. It's not an obvious conclusion to make, because this year's Elvis is unquestionably less explosive than last year's. Costello set the pace for This Year's Model by starting off with a terse half-whispered, half-sung, "I don't want to kiss you, I don't want to touch you," after which his band, the Attractions, kicked in with a crashing fury. This time around, the album commences with a lilting pop song, "Accidents Will Happen," and Elvis croons, "Oh, I just don't know where to begin."
The first half dozen times through the record, I didn't either. Something, it seemed, was missing and I was skeptical. The gripping intensity which marked This Year's Model, and to a lesser extent, My Aim Is True, appeared to be absent. Costello's new songs were just as clever, but smoother and more palatable. Was he making his stab at superstardom by toning down the rage of his material?
I don't think so anymore. In fact, Armed Forces may be Costello's most intense album. It's misleading at first because the songs are subtler, the melodies bouncier, and the initial impact is delayed. But when it hits (and it does hit), Armed Forces is quite evidently no comedown. Costello has merely broadened his approach, his songwriting has always incorporated a diversity of styles and on Armed Forces the boundaries are further expanded. There's the Beatle-esque chord descension on "Party Girls," the Spector-ish wall-of-sound on "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," the frivolous, yet eminently catchy, reggae structure of "Two Little Hitlers," and there's even an Abba-like piano bounce to "Oliver's Army."
But the music's unassuming pop feel belies the lyrical message. Costello still has a fair reserve of anger and frustration to summon up, and he does so frequently, but it is without the maniacism exhibited before. Now, he can be almost detached, and on Armed Forces the protagonists are many different people not just a wronged, hurt Elvis.
Costello is an adept worksmith, and he can register as much feeling with restraint as he can with unchecked bitterness. "Green Shirt" is the album's best selection; it has a tension produced by a repeated bass line that threatens to, but never explodes. The subject of the song is a female newscaster and Costello sing, "You tease, you flirt, and you shine all the buttons on your green shirt. You can please yourself but somebody's gonna get it." The nuance and phrasing of that couplet is perfect and a metallic military rat-tat-tat drum echo adds to the tense aura. Exactly WHY the song's subject merits such treatment remains fuzzy, but the uncertainty adds to the overall feeling of unrelieved nervousness.
Costello has evolved into a perceptive social critic. Importantly, he's reached out beyond the ultra-personal outlook his earlier material was largely based upon. Those songs of rejection and spite were (and are) splendid, concise vignettes. But he had to keep progressing as well, and the worldliness of Armed Forces makes it a mature album, as gripping in its broader scope, as the other two albums are in their narrower ones.
The surface contrasts with his This Year's Model are easily apparent and the initial reaction to Armed Forces MAY be one of disappointment. But beneath the pop polish lies the same conviction we've seen before, and it's pleasing to see Costello widen his horizons with both the music and the lyrics and still retain his credibility. He may be the Neil Young of the new wave.