At this point in his two-year career, Elvis Costello was poised for worldwide superstardom. The novelty of his name had dissipated casual listeners, and his output was keeping up the pace of his tours. And then, as the man himself has said, he screwed it up completely.
Armed Forces is the product of several trips across America in a tour bus, with such disparate sounds as Iggy Pop and ABBA in the tape deck providing the soundtrack to the observations from the window seat. The brilliance begins in the first track, "Accidents Will Happen," the opening line of which is "Oh, I just don't know where to begin." (This is his third album in a row that starts off with his voice alone for a few notes.)
"Busy Bodies," "Big Boys" and "Green Shirt" are further dizzying feats of wordplay. The pop touches (such as the "Dancing Queen"-inspired intro to "Oliver's Army" and the Beatlesque ending to "Party Girl") keep the album from being as abrasive as This Year's Model, but there's still plenty of anger bubbling beneath the shiny surface. There are a few more keyboard sounds in the mix, and the lyrics are as nasty as ever. (After all, the original title of the album was Emotional Fascism.)
So far, Armed Forces has only been reissued twice, though it's early. The 1993 Rykodisc version followed the UK sequence, with the hideous "Sunday's Best" in the middle of what was side two, followed by "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" (originally added at the end of the US LP in an excellent swap), some B-sides and the three tracks from the Live At Hollywood High EP that had been included with the first pressings of the LP.
The 2002 Rhino version follows the Rykodisc sequence up through "Peace, Love And Understanding" on one disc, with the Ryko bonus tracks, additional outtakes and further recordings from the Hollywood High concert in their original sequence.
As far as the original album is concerned, the nod goes to the US version, which also sported a different cover to the UK version's marauding elephants. Anyone would take such an anthemic closer as "Peace, Love And Understanding" (written by pal and producer Nick Lowe) over "Sunday's Best." But with all the different versions, Armed Forces is still classic power pop.