Armed Forces lives up to every one of my expectations for a third Costello album. Costello has left me with no doubt that he is the most significant and impressionistic rock personality of this decade.
For the past five to six months I have been saturating myself with his other albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model — always discovering things, a line, a feeling, a melody, a phrase, and I'm still being acquainted. Easily two of the most lustily satisfying albums I've heard. He has projected an image of himself as an angry young man out to get his back, and he waves a mean beat.
Costello has a lot to say about the state of a range of things and it seems he has plenty left to divulge. His lyrics are rampant, sometimes to the point of near obsession, with some aspects of modern day living affecting us all — fashion, mass media, television, vogues, drugs, sour relationships, vengeance, communication, the working life, racism, photography, mass production, love, war. Is he a soothsayer or keen observer? "Who put these fingerprints on my imagination," or "I used to be disgusted. But I try to be amused," he might well say.
And the first line of the album, "I just don't know were to begin" tells us where he finds himself when writing the songs. The theme on this one is predominantly one of armies, mercenaries, conflict, regimentation and brainwashing. "Oliver's Army" (the single which has one of the best television clips I've seen), "Goon Squad," "Senior Service," "Two Little Hitlers," "Green Shirt," and "Big Boys" deal with the subject but sometimes you wonder what exactly he's trying to say. Ideas come and go. There's a hint or reference to the real theme on the inner sleeve also, simply, "emotional fascism."
Again, there arc some brilliant songs on this album, namely "Accidents Will Happen," a sort of march-past or anthem tune, "Oliver's Army," "Busy Bodies," "Moods for Moderns," "Goon Squad," "Two Little Hitlers," "Party Girl," "Sunday's Best," all of which deserve hit status.
For each of the great tunes Costello has had on the charts, there's five more which deserve to be there. Songs off the other albums, like "Little Triggers," "I'm Not Angry," "Less Than Zero," "Miracle Man," "Alison" (and not Rondstadt's sanitised rendition), "Pay It Back," "Welcome To The Working Week," "No Action," "This Year's Girl," "(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes," I could go on and on.
And all those on two albums! Some of the most popular and strongest influence in pop music of the 60s are lavished throughout Costello and the Attractions' songs. Unconsciously disguised in a beat, tune, melody, chorus, lyric, it seems as if Costello's had for years stored, absorbed and toyed with them till he was ready to use them. In fact, hardly a thing is known about this singer-songwriter's life before August, 1976, when he walked into the offices of Britain's smallest and now very successful label, Stiff Records, within days of its inception, and was signed without hesitation.
That is probably why at times the British rock music press has loved to hate him, because his past is still an enigma. No doubt Costello wants to keep it that way too, after all, it's not as if he wants the adulation. The critics were not content with his average, former lifestyle as a family man and computer operator. His music should speak for itself.
Costello and the Attractions music is total. An untempered precise beat by drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas give the usually short, sharp tunes a propulsive core of Costello's tormented and venomous vocals. Keyboards-piano player Steve Naive expands and smoothens out the arrangements with verve.
It's plain to see this man's impassioned songs inspire. Mr Costello's three long playing discs arc required listening for people living in the modern world.