Of the new wave survivors, Elvis Costello and the Clash are the most vital and consistent, largely because they are the most direct — their music forms from a reaction to their environments, and in the case of the Clash, takes on a particularly virulent tone. What isn't as instantly recognizable is that Elvis Costello can be just as angry and lashing as the Clash. He concentrates his anger in more personal subjects most of the time, though, and then camouflages it further by burying it in layers of bouncy but still insistent pop melodies.
If This Year's Model was last year's triumph, then Costello's new Armed Forces is even more resounding. With a newly sharpened sense of romance, Costello and his band, the Attractions, proceed to pick apart a few social institutions, dump on mercenaries, and above all, examine failed male-female relationships. Probably 95 percent of all rock music in the last 25 years has been about love, but no one does it quite like Elvis Costello.
Armed Forces builds around a trio of songs about romances, and what happens when they turn sour. As usual, Costello assumes the role of narrator/observer/rejected lover, in the process discarding most of the coherence of viewpoint usually found in this type of song. In "Big Boys," for example, there is a random use of pronouns for subjects; we, you, I, and she are all found, and they essentially mean the same thing. But Costello is almost never confusing or redundant, partly because his view of women who use men is so sharp: they're all bitches, and that's that.
"Big Boys" is like "Living in Paradise" from This Year's Model: it's about competing with other guys for love. But the bitter Costello who complained about "physical jerks" in "Paradise" is now the stunned lover who has just come to his senses: "I am starting to function / In the usual way / Everything is so provocative / Very, very temporary / I shall walk / Out of this place." Amazingly, there's no sense of self-pity or being down-and-out in "Big Boys." Costello says it's certainly not his fault that he got shafted; now he knows not to get involved with the same kind of evil woman again. But it does happen again. In "Green Shirt," at least Costello is a more distant observer, cataloguing a woman who tries only to please himself, leaving a trail of male wreckage in the meantime. Where "Big Boys" is built on staccato bass runs and keyboard swells, though, "Green Shirt" is simple and compelling: a quiet, pulsating synthesiser fills up most of the song, punctuated by Bruce and Pete Thomas' syncopated quartets of bass and drum notes that are powerful enough to put you through the windshield should you be lucky and hear "Green Shirt" on the car radio.
The quirky organ swells of Steve Naiive hide the viciousness of "Moods for Moderns," in which Costello admits to being replaced in a romance, then delights in watching the woman fall apart in her new affair: "I get hit looking for a miss / Never thought it would come to this / Though we may never be the same again / And I'm so glad you've been taken in vain."
The tone of "Big Boys," "Green Shirt," and "Moods for Moderns" is dangerous, maybe even violent, but can still go by unnoticed. If Costello and the Attractions used a musical form more akin to heavy metal, something like "Green Shirt" would probably sound like the Dead Boys' "Caught With the Meat in Your Mouth." But Costello's mid-sixties arrangements (which owe to various bands) have become increasingly more intricate on Armed Forces, so that even the most blatant woman-hating sentiment is glossed over.
In fact, Armed Forces might be subtitled, "In Which Our Boys Discover the Wonders of the Studio." There are all sorts of fascinating tricks on the album: guitar chords phased out into the background with an echo delay vocal on "Senior Service," piano flourishes and an almost deliberate overproduction on "Party Girl," multi-tracked chorus voices on "Busy Bodies"...Much of the credit must go to producer Nick Lowe, he of many talents and golden hands. The only problem on Armed Forces is that some songs (notably "Green Shirt" and the bright, obtuse "Oliver's Army") build up to frantic endings and then just fade out; they practically scream for a final crashing chord.
Much of Elvis Costello's vision and direction can be seen in one line from "Busy Bodies:" "Everybody's getting meaner." The world is rampant with goon squads, mercenaries who kill for money, government agencies relentlessly dipping into our pockets, and schools teaching garbage. What is worst, though, is that love, once a slavation, is now inextricably mixed up with war, nowhere more so than in "Two Little Hiders," a song that actually substitutes war for love. Emotional fascism is on the rise.
Since Armed Forces is an album about love and war, it is significant that the final song, "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," is the first and only time on the album that Elvis Costello sings about rising above misery and wretchedness to something more universally good. But even then, there's only a possibility of understanding. "What's So Funny" is appropriately not even a Costello song, but rather a Nick Lowe piece of pure pop that gets an epic treatment. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, Costello warns, but it's a damned long tunnel.