Elvis Costello is the only New Wave performer to gain what the people in power (advertisers, programmers, and "rack jobbers" — the guys who decide what LPs will be sold in department stores, PXs, etc.) would call commercial success. You can get his albums in the PX or the 5&10, in other words. He is now the object of his third massive American advertising media blitz campaign by Columbia Records; he's in the states for what I believe to be his fourth U.S. tour in two years; and he's just released a third album: Armed Forces.
Because of the cultishness and general contempt for commerciality in the New Wave movement, lots of people are suspect of or just plain old fed up with Costello's popularity. A friend of mine in the UK., who makes it his job to know and live with the new rock all the time, complained: "It is a shame that a neurotic like Costello gets all the recognition and backing from Columbia when the greatest front man ever incarnated (Joe Strummer of The Clash) can barely even get his records released in the USA! I saw Costello three weeks ago and he was pathetic. Playing the star! I don't believe him anymore." So Elvis has to take it on the chin from hard-core New Wavers as well as from the general public who, thanks to Columbia's great advertising and his thrice rerun Saturday Night Live appearance, think he's some kind of weird novelty act! But I'm not holding anything against him, myself. Each LP has been a long-term resident of my turntable, and "Armed Forces" is really great.
Elvis' band is The Attractions and their sound is like that of a really good 1960's band. They sound like Question Mark and The Mysteries (remember "96 Tears"?) .. lots of Farfaisa organ. Bruce Thomas plays a wild innovative bass, and Pete Thomas is a drummer who is constantly goosing things into a frenzy. The music's got the bounce of bubblegum music, a dash of funk, and the kinetic energy of the best rock and roll. Every one of Costello's songs has a dynamite hook.. (By the way, you should know that a hook is a refrain so tuneful and catchy that you can't help but hum it. ALL top forty songs have hooks.) That is why you catch yourself humming some really inane and embarrassing song like "Undercover angel" even though you can't stand it and it makes you sick. It's eminently hummable. Asides aside, the band is tight and so is Costello's songwriting.
This new album is beautiful. Sometimes I feel that these folks (the real rock and rollers) must be talking specifically to me. Armed Forces seems designed specifically for folks who are similar to Costello's stage persona: repressed, frustrated, angry, and bored. "Oliver's Army" is the best song about the military that I've ever heard. It's singer seems to be a recruiter. He starts out asking the listener: "For Korea's information, Have you got yourself an occupation?" and then: "If you're out of luck you're out of work, We can send you to Johannesburg!" It goes on to talk about the psychology of some poor dude pulling guard. Actually, he's hanging around Checkpoint Charlie wondering if all hell is gonna break loose. It makes you wonder if Costello was ever in the service, you know?
Other songs address more topics that you can relate to the military, or anything else, depending. "Senior Service," "Green Shirt," "Two Little Hitlers," and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" are all swell. "Understanding," the first non-original tune on any of Elvis' records, is by his producer, Nick Lowe. It is evocative and without doubt the most straightforward and marketable song I've heard him sing. In the single three chord rocker, Costello naively asks, "Why all the fighting in the world today? Why is everyone so wicked? Where is love and sanity, anyhow?" Being an obvious intellectual and neurotic, it is kind of incongruous for Elvis to ask these questions ... but it works! It come across honest to me. Innocent questions from Costello sound like desperate cry for somebody somewhere to bring some relief to love-starved humanity.
As far as I can see, Costello no longer really fits into the stylistic category "New Wave." Messages are still there and the music packs a good punch, but this album is designed for mainstream audiences, too. If you are timid about buying any of this new rock and roll, why not start with Armed Forces? Then go with Ramones' Rocket to Russia and Flamin' Groovies' Teenage Head. Who knows? In a couple weeks you might be able to graduate to Pere Ubu, X-Ray Specs, The Clash, or Richard Hell and The Voidoids! Enjoy yourself — and don't miss Costello in Austin on February 23 and 24.