Like Harlan Ellison's Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, the Elvis Costello of My Aim is True and This Year's Model set 'em up to knock 'em down: his compassion wealed redly destructive, his empathy fell from the heavens as a smothering blanket of nuclear fallout. The anger and pain of the first two albums, Resentment Rock at its crudest, was mitigated — and redeemed — by self-deprecation and a classroom-smart lyric style that belied the street-punk Costello has adopted. Or maybe has adapted — Armed Forces is an album that calls upon (and remains true to) its predecessors even as it demonstrates how far the artist has come since My Aim... was released little over a year ago. Costello has been a surprising critics'-darling from the first, usually embraced with terms like "the plucky little rocker" or "this feisty bantam of belligerence"; let's hope Armed Forces puts an end to this smarmily well-intentioned condescension. If he can continue to grow as he has grown here, Elvis Costello is going to give us a goodly share of the fine music we anticipate in the eighties.
Armed Forces lacks the constriction of Costello's earlier albums, as though he has (ala Garland Jeffries on One-Eyed Jack) come to terms just enough to broaden his scope — rather than this is what I am, Forces says, in the main. I know what I am, and this is how I see things. The songs are still about making love and making hate, but they hint that the first is natural and the second manufactured. And not necessarily institutionally so, either — Costello notes more than once that hatred is a very thriving cottage industry, as growable in your basement as Ray Bradbury's famous mushrooms.
The most ponderous things to come from Armed Forces will be reviews like this one, thank god — the record itself is composed of the typical two-and-a-half minute rockers that are over before they begin, played with a zestful (and, I fear, unavoidable) simplicity by the Attractions (no Rumour, these boys), produced with a muddy vengeance by the redoubtable Nick Lowe, and sung with the usual nigh-unintelligble mannerisms of the King himself. And there's no lyric sheet, all to the good: sure, rock's gotta be fun, but it shouldn't be easy. (What there is — if you hustle out and buy the first pressing — is a little bonus e.p. included free of charge. Beside having a funny and appropriate title, Elvis Costello and the Attractions Live at Hollywood High, contains new —and I mean new — versions of "Accidents Will Happen," "Allison," and "Watching the Detectives" that sound good and will undoubtedly increase in value disproportionate to their musical worth as years go by. If you are going to buy this one, you might as well do it now and pick up an extra you can employ to jack the resale price. David Horowitz gets paid for this sort of shit.)
Dissection is worthwhile if the corpse is corpulent and well-aged; rock seems a hit young, a bit too lean to yield much truth after the scalpel's applied. It is an immediate art form and is best appreciated first-hand, before it's components are strewn about the charnel house: no matter how great any guitar solo, the parts are never greater than the whole. So no words here on Armed Forces individual tunes. I found it a good Elvis Costello album, very probably the best Elvis Costello album, and I found that eight of its twelve songs worked. You may find more, or less, that work for you. If you haven't heard Costello and want to start doing so. Armed Forces is your best bet. It's crude quartet rock, mannered and purposely adolescent, and it lacks both the polish of Elvis' older colleagues and the savagery of his younger. But that's beside the point, I think; Costello's stance is unique enough that it would be to our collective good to get used to him.
I found another thing in Armed Forces; I found for the first time since the Kinks appeared in the early sixties, a stance, a concern, that evoke Ray Davies. Various Beatles and Stones have been — and will be — fine rock composers, fine rock artists and Pete Townsend and John Entwistle of the Who will continue to touch both life and the genre with their perceptions. And these people will have their successors. But Costello offers a different gift: when he shades his bitterness with rue, when he learns to differentiate between hatred, disgust and revulsion, when he realizes the promise that slashes Armed Forces. he will stand a good chance of becoming, as Davies became, the most reproachful, the angriest, and the most humane rocker of his generation.