Elvis Costello. His very name is a parody, a twisting joke. Is it ironic, fitting, or fittingly ironic, that Elvis Costello is the most important rock-and-roll artist to emerge since Springsteen crawled out of the Jersey Pines? Springsteen confronted life's broken dreams with a romantic notion, one foot in the slime of reality, one eye on a future hope, and his body rejecting the limbo in between. Costello attacks the world with a logical precision that rejects everything the least bit tainted by Adam's seed. On the surface, Elvis appears to forget that he, too, is Adam's son. But he is too intelligent to proclaim personal perfection even though he tends to bury admissions to the contrary. His crusade is clearly legitimate. What's tongue-in-check, anyway, if not a pessimistic lug-wrench? A loose bolt may be taken for granted, overlooked. A tight, stubborn bolt demands attention.
Notably absent from Armed Forces is a lyric sheet. We are left only with the striking images we can piece together, unable to form a totality. Costello's voice may he passionate, but it speaks quickly, saying much with each breath. Maybe he meant for it to be this way. Elvis' chief complaint on his first American tour was that Americans are stupid. Could it be that we are actually supposed to listen?
The album's title, Armed Forces, reflects Elvis's fatalistic view of human interaction. Perpetual conflict. Trust no one. His idea of a love song is "Two Little Hitters." "Two Little Hitlers who fight it our until one little Hitler does the other one's will." I see a universal theme, however — a metaphor on natural selection. In the Costello mind, man is inherently evil. Is he convinced beyond a doubt? In "Goon Squad," he sings: "You'll never get them to make a lamp shade out of me." Could be a me-first attitude, but could also be a rallying cry to the masses, begging for a response.
Admittedly, Costello's message is often vague. "Green Shirt" has a sexual theme; exactly what is meant, I don't know. Maybe we should look at rock-and-roll, definition (b). The message can be obscure, if the vehicle is tight. The attractions are finely honed band, and Nick Lowe a polished producer. In true New Wave fashion, "Senior Service" utilizes the tinny sound of the synthesizer for rhythm. "Green Shirt" uses a synthesized bass pulse for a bottom line. Such implementation contrasts with the other electronic trend in modern music, cerebral self-indulgence. A most welcome aspect of Costello, and New Wave in general, is the organ revival in rock, and the downplay of the incessant, high-pitched guitar solos.
The first 200,000 album copies sold contain an added bonus: an E.P., Live At Hollywood High. Featured is a subtle "Alison," and the reggae-ish "Watching the Detectives."
By album's end, we may be convinced that Elvis Costello wears his permanent scowl internally, and possesses a hopeless basket of bad mood. The final song, a Nick Lowe cover, turns around and shows us just how real, and noble, in his torment. "Each time I find I'm slipping away. Just makes me want to cry. What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?" And I think he means it.