It's never been easy to figure out the meanings of Elvis Costello's lyrics, and the words of his new collection, Armed Forces, are no different. The lead song, "Accidents Will Happen," could refer to either hit-and-run drivers or unwanted pregnancies. Most of his other songs are equally ambiguous, as was the original album title, Emotional Fascism, which was scrapped by Columbia because it was, "too dangerous." But in a time when popular music boasts such complex and beautiful words as, "Do ya think I'm sexy," "Get up and bogie," and "Freak out," Costello's ambiguity and lyrical twists are refreshing.
Whatever it is that Costello is saying, it's obvious that he means it; Elvis sings with conviction and emotion. His voice reflects the conflict and frustration that are the underlying themes of his music. Costello is probably the only man in popular music today to have the guts to ask something like, "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?" in a song, and leave the listener believing that he really means it. Really means it ... not much of that left in the banal, contrived music of the late 70's.
Even if you don't like ambiguous lyrics, or Elvis' alienated voice, Costello will capture you with his music. The songs are remarkably powerful and driving, especially when one considers that Costello's is a spare, four-man band. Elvis proves that music can be strong, yet listenable, without heavy-handed hammer chords (Foreigner) or added layers of artificial sound (Queen). The band plays basic rock-and-roll, complete with a strong beat and some very catchy melodies. The songs are tight: all under three minutes in length, and no boring "Dazed and Confused" solos. Elvis' music, along with his superior words, mark him high above the Punk/ New Wave fringe that he was originally associated with.
Armed Forces is produced by fellow Briton Nick Lowe, also a rock performer. Lowe has been said to be a major influence on Costello and his production work is commendable. The music sounds clean and uncluttered. Although there are some heavy bass/ keyboard riffs on the album, the sound is never sluggish or muddy. Lowe has done a great deal in just letting Costello's music stand for itself