In these days of bludgeoning heavy metal rockers and pretty pop stars, the value of subtle, cryptic lyrics seems to be forgotten. Elvis Costello's third LP, Armed Forces, is a tour de force of lyrical potency and masterful musical arrangements.
Ever since the stunning debut of his first LP, My Aim Is True, Costello has been noted for his cryptic tunes. Much of this has to do with his drawing from English society.
Other young bands in Britain, most notably the Clash and the Tom Robinson Band, have raised their voices against the Front; none with the effectiveness of Costello.
Whereas the followup LP, This Year's Model dealt for the most part with Costello's personal vision of sexual problems ("No Action," "You Belong to Me" and "Lip Service"), the music on Armed Forces widens the scope further. "Oliver's Army" deals with white racism. "Goon Squad" with racism and government mind control. and "Senior Service" with a variety of social questions.
This is not to say, however, that Costello has forgotten about the interpersonal relationship. "Accidence Will Happen," "Busy Bodies" and "Big Boys" all deal effectively with this theme.
"Two Little Hitler's" shows us Costello's view of many relationships as a power struggle, with each party trying to dominate the other.
Perhaps the beet song on the LP, however, is "Green Shirt" It combines music and lyrics with extraordinary power:
"I never said I was a stool pigeon/ I never said I was a diplomat/ Everybody's under suspicion but you don't want to hear about that. / You tease, and you flirt, and you shine an the buttons on your green shirt."
The keyboards hover about ominously as the drums and bass drive the words forward. Costello adds an additional touch with his barely noticeable but effective guitar.
While Elvis Costello's songs have remained basically the same over three LP's, his musical arrangements have altered. He and producer Nick Lowe have taken a different attack on the predominance of lead guitar in rock. Whereas most of the "new wave" bends have shifted to a rhythm guitar assault, Costello and Lowe have virtually eliminated the lead guitar. It is put in to achieve the most artistic effect.
Lowe's masterful production ability, evident most strongly on the bonus three song EP Live at Hollywood High, may be part of the reason for Costello's success; the latter has stuck with Lowe through three records. It will be interesting to see if Costello will retain him for a fourth.