"Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation." — Eugene V. Debs.
All right already, Elvis Costello is not merely a hot headed politico. Still that 12" whirling disc provides a hefty substitute for a soap box. He doesn't seem to have a coherent philosophy and the last thing he'll discuss with a reviewer or journalist is What It All Means. I can hardly blame him.
Yet Armed Forces, his latest most virile (yes virile, not macho), and most direct LP to date, has a lyric writhing, which dares the listener not to be agitated.
O.K. so I'm a lyric nut, and it's natural that I became elated when so gifted a lyricist as Costello fills a 7 or 8 odd year old void with his words squirming behind those ironically "innocuous" melodies. Definitely, he's an oasis in a desert of "Dance, Dance, Boogie, Oogie."
But words are his warfare in an insane world. Some examples of Costello's nuclear metaphors of wit are in order here. In "Senior Service" he describes mercenary recruitment as "the breath you took too late / it's a death that's worse than fate."
"Accidents Will Happen" is likewise replete with exacerbating irony and turns of phrase ("They keep you hanging up until you're well hung / Accidents will happen / but only hit and run ... your mind is made up / but your mouth is undone").
As its title implies, a paramilitary theme pervades the entire album, running the gamut from mercenary opportunities ("All it takes is one itchy trigger / one more widow one less white nigger," Oliver's Army) to nightmarish uniformed woman inquisitors ("She's listening into the venus line / she's pitching out names / I hope none of them are mine / But you tease, you flirt / You hide all the buttons on your green shirt — "Green Shirt").
So there is no denying that as the seventies draw to a close, social conscience and relevance (there's an almost archaic word for you) are alive and well here. Only now thick horned rimmed bespectacled Britishers sing out the news in place of pastoral dewey eyed folk singers. And besides, you can dance to this ... "Oliver's Army" could easily have been produced almost note for note by Phil Spector in the early sixties and had it performed by The Ronettes.
And there's the rub. The lyrics grab in direct contrast to the music. One has to think that one is dancing to lyrics such as "If you're out of luck or out of work / we can send you to Johannesburg." Or the terse warning "Here's career information have you got your self innoculation!" Franz Kafka with back beat? Why not?
This is Costello's third consistently good album in less than 18 months. Each time around his anger is more pronounced yet lyrically more subtle. In "Chemistry Class" he asks "Are you ready for the final solution?" He describes "emotional fascism" (an obscure term mentioned cryptically on the album's inner jacket) aptly "Two little Hitlers will fight it out until / one little Hitler does the other one's will."
In the cauldron of Elvis's ticking imagination, there simmers a sense of urgency. Those elephants depicted on the cover aren't stampeding for nothing.
Armed Forces is the product of a nation (the U.K.) in which a fascist movement (the National Front) already exists. In the U.S. the threat of a new military draft, proposed for men and women (Green Shirt, suddenly becomes ominous) looms in Congress. Armed Forces, sounds an alarm, which should be heeded. ("They took me in the office and they told me very carefully / the ways that I could benefit from death and disability").
I recall when a "progressive" D.J. played a song from This Year's Model. The reaction was unforgettable. For the uninformed, the song in question, "Radio, Radio," is a polemic against the complacency of that medium (they don't want to hear about it ...). The jock, obviously embarrassed, choked out something like "Uh, ah, that was, um, Elvis Costello, um, giving his (Chuckle, gulp) impression of ah, um, well ... radio." He quickly crawled into a waterbed.
So agitate he will. Behind those thick glasses, flares an artist who not only doesn't want us to stagnate, but simply won't allow us to.