It takes a while to make it as a rock 'n' roller. There's years of work at small clubs putting together a band and developing your ideas into hummable, danceable three minute increments—years before the big break comes. But paradoxically, once you've made it, you're expected to produce a fresh crop of songs every nine months or so.
It's the challenge of all the new performers that have suddenly emerged under the banner of New Wave to continue to grow past their often unmatchably exciting debut albums. It is this challenge that Elvis Costello takes up on his recently released third album, Armed Forces, with 'mixed results.
Elvis' first album, My Aim is True established him as more than your average alienated adolescent. His performance was angry, anguished, amused and always intense. He portrayed himself hurt by love; cut off from the world. And through it all, he displayed a remarkable ear for the kind of licks and hooks that made rock 'n' roll so great in its golden early Beatles-Stones-Who days. His next album, This Year's Model, continued to develop the theme of shattered relationships and fractured communications. The competent back-up band of the debut album was replaced by the Attractions, who are everything a great rock 'n' roll back-up band should be: exuberant, tight and funky as hell.
All of which brings us to Armed Forces, Elvis' third effort. The bad news is that the tunes don't equal those of the first two albums: the melodies are catchy, but with a few exceptions lack the bit that is characteristic of the Costello we've come to know. The good news is that Elvis is stronger lyrically than ever before. The album was originally called Emotional Fascism, (before typically faint-hearted record biz execs objected), and this title signals a subtle but important change in Costello's focus. He still sings of the cruelty of people in their relationships with one another, but some of his obsessiveness has faded, with the result that he can look around and, with devastating clarity, see all the emotional
fascism that runs through everyday life. Gone is single-minded rage of the first album's "Alison" where he muses on killing his old girl, now married (to someone else, of course) as a sort of mercy killing:
Sometimes I wish I that I could stop you from talking,
When I hear the silly things that you say,
I think somebody better put out the big light,
'Cause I can't stand to see you this way...
Alison, I know this world is killing you
Oh Alison, my aim is true
Armed Forces opens with Costello taking a hard look at himself, for the first time. The lyrics of "Accidents Will Happen" sum up a great deal of what is going on in the album:
And it's the damage that we do and never know,
It's the words that we don't say that scare me so.
There's so many people to see,
So many people you can check upon and add to your collection,
But they keep you hanging on,
Until you're well hung,
Your mouth is made up, but your mind is undone.
Accidents will happen, we're only hit and run,
Used to be a victim, now you're not the only one,
Accidents will happen, we're only hit and run,
I don't want to hear it 'cause I know what I've done.
Whereas the first two albums were accusatory, someone was always hurting him, he set himself up as a perpetual victim, Armed Forces benefits from a new-found ability to write convincingly about other people. "Two Little Hitlers" is the story of a relationship reeling with selfish, insecure neurosis. The power games that the two play with each other are described with a typical Costellian eye for the humorous turn of phrase:
Got me a valentine,
She's a smooth operator,
It's all so calculating,
She's got a calculator,
She's my soft-touch typewriter,
And I'm the great dictator.
Two little Hitlers will fight it out,
'Til one little Hitler does the other one's will...
You say you'll never know him,
He's not a natural man,
He doesn't want your pleasure
He wants as no one can,
He wants to know the names,
Of all those he's better than.
But while "Two Little Hitlers'" rinkydink tune is somehow fitting, the softness of the other songs is a real problem. The influence of producer Nick (Pure Pop for Now People) Lowe is a bit stifling. Lowe is famous for his uncanny parodies of pop styles, and perhaps as a result the tunes are almost too catchy on Armed Forces. "Moods for Moderns" is typical: it's practically nothing but hummable hooks, but somehow it lacks the punch that a good rock song should have. Throughout the album, the keyboards are in the forefront at the expense of Costello's guitar and the album sags for want of the toughening influence of some jarring guitar work.
Ironically, the song on the album that really zaps you is a Nick Lowe composition "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding."
The EP enclosed with the first two hundred thousand copies is only mediocre. It does have an excellent arrangement of "Accidents Will Happen" for just piano and Elvis, but a soft version of "Alison" adds little to the original, and there is an embarrassing rendition of "Watching the Detectives."
Elvis Costello has made a name for himself as one of rock's most exciting performers in under three years. All in all, Armed Forces should strengthen his reputation while widening his audience. As usual, every song is of the stuck-in-my-head-can't-stop-humming-it variety, potential singles from beginning to end, and the lyrics are stronger than ever. Armed Forces finds Elvis Costello still growing musically and lyrically: here's somebody worth listening (and dancing) to.