Rock 'n' roll music, without lyrical substance, is a .357 magnum revolver loaded with blanks — the gun may fire and the noise may deafen, but the effect is impotent.
Great rockers like Lou Reed, David Bowie and more recently David Johansen have transcended their contemporaries by combining sledgehammer beats and ripping guitar solos with lyrics that devastate even when removed from their musical context.
Bring on Armed Forces, Elvis Costello's newest release. First take Costello's frantic and frenzied delivery — seen for the first time he eerily calls forth images of a Buddy Holly, removed from the Lubbock, Tex., of the early '50's and saturates them with the nihilism of the mid-'70's. Then add the Attractions' stun-gun delivery. The result provides a fascinating texture, the depth of which is only appreciated after multiple listenings.
Armed Forces is an unsettling album, one that sneers at powers-that-be, and (in Costello's own description) provides a glimpse of "emotional fascism."
What a charred landscape it is. Black forces like "Oliver's Army," lie low somewhere out there on "Murder Mile":
"Only takes one itchy trigger ... and I would rather be anywhere else / but here today...
Costello paints a dark picture of a crazed world, populated by dangerous elements both within and without.
His approach to that world seems a combination of scorn and fear. On "Two Little Hitlers," he sneers:
"Two little Hitlers will fight it out until / one little Hitler does the other one's will."
And further describes such a contest as:
"A simple game of self respect / you flick the switch / and the world goes off / nobody jumps as you expect / I would have thought / you would have had enough by now..."
Costello is listed as songwriter for every track on Armed Forces except for the last — "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." That song, as well as the query it poses, was written by producer Nick Lowe. It's a good ending to an album dedicated to the excoriation of darkness.
With Armed Forces Elvis Costello and the Attractions lastingly establish their validity as serious rockers. The music may pound, the lyrics may sting, but most importantly, it works.
Costello appeared in the public eye at about the same time that the new-wave, punk rock movement was peaking in a crescendo fated to consume itself.
That timing, combined with Costello's British origin and a journalistic penchant for fitting things into neat categories, earned Costello a description as a punk rocker in some circles. The label is about as valid as are most issued in such a manner: it isn't.