"Oh I just don't know where to begin." It is with this declaration of indecision that Elvis Costello launches his third album, Armed Forces. It is an extremely wry and ironic statement coming from an artist who has always flaunted an obsessive, self-assured determination.
Once again he demonstrates his bristling independence by shifting and widening his music, opening its sound without sacrificing its compelling power or density.
The major change is with Costello's guitar work. The clear, aggressive mosaic spray characterizing This Year's Model is virtually gone. Now his guitar plays a subordinate role which permits his band, The Attractions, to deploy its individual expertise.
Keyboardist Steve Naive's prominent articulation is best exhibited in "Green Shirt"; his elegant sound, sinuous and smooth as a silken ribbon, erupts into an efflorescent epiphany which sensuously halos that song's disturbing vocals. The rhythm section plays with the military precision of an elaborate regimental count-off.
None of this should fool us, as Costello's presence as a singer/composer still dominates this record.
His angst, anger and artistry culminate in a style which now attempts to be less triumphant, more heroic.
With the '60s liberated sensibility having hardened into static disillusionment and cynicism, Costello's aggressive egocentricism captures and expresses this decade's ruthless politics of survival.
Nevertheless, he enlarges his earlier attacks on the cultural contradictions of a capitalism which invokes a demanding work ethic while manufacturing products of plastic pleasure. He also aims his guns toward more overt political concerns, such as military oppression ("Oliver's Army") and the recurring fascination with fascism ("Goon Squad").
He has sandpapered the edges from some of his vocals, leaving a raspy whisper which belies confidentiality. But Costello's vengeful intensity seldom allows us the priviliged status of trusted ally.
This new vocal presentation coats his singing with an intimate intimidation in "Chemistry Class" and with pleading emotionalism in "Party Girl." This last song reflects both Costello's and producer Nick Lowe's empassioned infatuation with the '60s musical legacy.
The cyclic turbulence of its finish is a direct lift from The Beatles' "You Never Give Me Your Money." This form of protracted coda is a widespread addition to Costello's music, replacing the band's former abrupt conclusions.
Costello's vocal delivery now possesses a highly rarified and polished command, verging on the exotic and acrobatic. His lyrics are fortified with puns, cliché reversals and non sequiturs closely related to the music's structure and direction. "Two Little Hitlers" demonstrates the pivotal power of such verbal games by employing the word 'will' to springboard the song into a momentary active retreat.
At other times, his unique union of music and lyrics exhibits a complementary complicity which surpasses anything the group has ever attempted.
"Senior Service" brandishes a bounding beat that fully supports and propels its defiant vocals, sung full of the challenge of a jabbing finger and a jutting jaw. "Big Boys" freezes and repeats the line, "She'll be the one", while intercutting it with new secondary vocals which fluidly graduate as the dominant narrative link. This unique transition is a perfect example of Costello's growth in compositional complexity.
The album perhaps lacks the stunning monumentality of This Year's Model. On the other hand, there are few disappointing cuts. Busy Bodies, a song which comes running at the listener, takes too long to discover its proper pace. And although engagingly powerful, "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love And Understanding" and "Goon Squad"'s motored primal urgency seem strangely out of place within the overall effort.
All in all, Armed Forces will not only contribute to Costello's burgeoning hegemony within the new wave scene, but will undoubtedly leave its musical and lyrical fingerprints on our imagination.