My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, Elvis Costello's first two albums, each began, not with any establishing instrumental introduction, but with Elvis confronting the listener directly by beginning to sing the album's opening line a moment before the band jumped in. Armed Forces starts the same way. "Oh, I just don't know where to begin," Elvis intones, and the album is underway with "Accidents Will Happen." Like his previous albums, Armed Forces never lets up in intensity from the moment it begins. Elvis hasn't let down his guard yet, and he still has a lot to say. While the format is superficially the same as before, Elvis is as fresh as ever, and the new album is in no danger of being confused with the earlier ones.
While much of the difference between the first two Elvis LPs could be explained by the fact that different musicians played on each of them, this is not the case with Armed Forces. Elvis's band, the Attractions, appears on this album, as they did on the second, but anyone expecting an extension or reworking of This Year's Model is in for a shock ... and that's what Elvis is all about. Like many of his fellow new wave artists, Costello despises complacency of any sort, and this attitude is expressed in his music as well as his lyrics. Nick Lowe, apparently Elvis's permanent producer, has an obvious understanding of what Elvis is doing, and has given each Costello album its own distinct sound. Armed Forces is fuller than anything Elvis has issued before. Steve Naive still uses his Question Mark and the Mysterians-type organ, but this time a large number of other keyboards abounds, ranging from acoustic piano to synthesizer. Even Elvis's guitar playing sounds fuller this time. Much of the material ("Oliver's Army," for example) is bouncier than before. One might say that the music is deceptively pleasant, but the venom in Elvis's voice leaves little room for confusion regarding the album's tone. The catchy quality of some of the tunes is just another form of musical subversion — the catchier the tune, the harder it is to get out of your head.
Like This Year's Model, Armed Forces could vaguely be described as a "concept album." This time, politics and personal relationships are interwoven in murky but frightening fashion. The phrase "emotional fascism" (once considered for the LP's title) appears on the album's inner sleeve as a key to understanding the record's lyrical content. Costello seems to perceive political corruption and manipulation as a direct result of the inadequate individual attention which people devote to their sexual relationships. Elvis sees the dangers of "control," either over one's love partner or the masses. In "Two Little Hitlers," he describes a relationship between two lovers as a miniature of world power struggles, with each party attempting to impose his (and her) will on the other.
The album's closing number, Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," marks the first time Costello has included a non-original composition on one of his albums. Elvis makes the song his own, though, delivering an incredibly stark punk performance. Gone are all the vocal and instrumental harmonies of the original Brinsley Schwarz version, along with the spoken section. Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas are pushed to the forefront, and Costello's vocal makes the song more a hostile statement than a whimsical question. As ever, Elvis is challenging the listener. The next move is ours.