Elvis Costello once told a British journalist that all of his songs are motivated by revenge and guilt. The material on his first two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, affirm the now-famous quote.
However, Costello’s new album, Armed Forces, shows signs of increasing maturity from the eloquent angry young man of rock and roll. His third album contains a wider range of moods, emotions and perspectives than the previous albums display.
Where pain and and failure reigned supreme, a guarded optimism now dwells. The songs on Armed Forces communicate a sense of possibility in an absurd world. While Costello continues to manipulate the English language in new and beautiful ways, his cynical lyrics have been tempered with humor, kindness and sensibility. There’s even a long song, "Party Girl," on the album.
New topics are explored. The company cutthroat of "Senior Service" and the mercenary soldiers of "Oliver's Army" have their places in this year’s masterpiece.
Costello has always paid great attention to relations between the sexes in his lyrics. While previous songs portray sexual contact as nothing less than an existential disaster, as in "Mystery Dance" and "Lipstick Vogue," sexual connection is a random "accident," a pleasant "hit and run" on Armed Forces.
Instrumentally, Armed Forces is a radical departure from Costello's earlier work. Costello and his Attractions boast a full, almost orchestral sound throughout most of the album. Producer Nick Lowe has updated the infamous wall of sound pioneered by Phil Spector and Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
Costello's electric guitar playing takes a backseat as instruments and vocals are overdubbed to produce a more polished sound that the frontal assault of the first two albums. Acoustic guitar and piano play prominent roles in the new sound.
Armed Forces is the first Costello album where nearly every word can be understood on the first listening.
The most surprising aspect of Armed Forces is the subtle disco beat which occasionally surfaces on the album. "Senior Service" and "Moods For Modern" feature the aforementioned rhythm; the bouncy reggae beat of "Two Little Hitlers" defies the listener to remain seated. "Green Shirt" effectively evokes the spirit of German electronic disco producer Giorgio Moroder, without the presence of a danceable beat!
Armed Forces is yet another chapter in the brilliance and vision of Elvis Costello.