"Some of my friends sit around every evening and they worry about the times ahead," crooned Elvis Costello in a raspy, tortured voice on his last album. Costello — the little guy in the seedy suit and black plastic glasses — sounds worried himself on his latest release. He's always powered his songs with two emotions, woman-hating sexual frustration and corporate paranoia. On Armed Forces, the paranoia takes over and twists his music into some very strange, chilly shapes and sounds.
Costello's recording history is one of those success stories that's satisfying because the artist deserves every bit of acclaim he's received. His first album, recorded with only a bassist and drummer backing him, shocked people in 1977 — forces that small hadn't produced such energetic and memorable music in ages. The follow-up only a few months later, This Year's Model, landed on the public almost too soon — it was hard to believe one man could write that many great songs so fast, and record them so well. This Year's Model added an organ to Costello's instrumental mix, but kept the clean, direct sound that delivered his catchy hooks so well. It remains his best album; every song is classic rock and roll in a style critics had given up years ago for lost.
Behind all this dramatic song-writing lay anger — not a punk's stick-your-tongue-out anger at society, but the very personal anger of a man's failures with women. Track after track railed on about the fumbling, fear and deception that, at least for Costello, no "sexual revolution" ever relieved. On This Year's Model, another figure crept up behind Elvis the victim of women — Elvis the victim of corporate espionage, electronic surveillance, loss of privacy, depersonalization; Elvis the inhabitant of 1984.
The two characters bumped into each other, of course; in "Living in Paradise," he sang
You think that I don't know the boy that you're touching
But I'll be at the video, and I will be watching
But in an unsettling way Costello at times seemed gleefully to accept and participate in the paranoia. The cover of This Year's Model featured him peering like a suspicious, hurt little boy from behind a movie camera trained on you. In "Night Rally," a song from the British edition of This Year's Model which Columbia removed from the domestic release (I wonder why?), he sings
The corporation logo is flashing on and off in the sky
They're putting all your names in the forbidden book
I know what they're doing but I don't want to look
You think they're so dumb, you think they're so funny
Wait until they've got you running to the night rally
Armed Forces began life under the name "Emotional Fascism." The old title is a perfect epithet for Elvis Costello's obsessions, but he had to bow to the commercial wisdom that would advise against that title. Costello hasn't completely given up on womankind, but his misogyny makes way for the paranoia here, and the music reflects the change. It's less straightforward, a bit less dynamic, and relies heavily on the work of studio whiz Nick Lowe.
It would be unfair to expect any musician to maintain the hot-and-bothered pace of Costello's first two albums, and Armed Forces does have its share of rockers — "Goon Squad" and "Accidents Will Happen" in particular carry on the tradition. But all over the new album there are signs of his evolution towards more versatile music-making. He's always had a touch of the middle-of-the-road about him — he recorded a Burt Bacharach number on a live anthology last year. "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," a Nick Lowe song which Costello belts out on Armed Forces, brilliantly parodies good-hearted, wide-eyed lyrics with a seductive pop melody.
Other songs on the album go the opposite way — tones and squeals ornament the chillier lyrics about sanitized society. On "Green Shirt," an obstinate bass pulse and the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun drum hover behind these lyrics:
Better cut off all identifying labels
Before they put you on the torture table
Cause somewhere in the quisling clinic
There's a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes
She's listening in to the Venus line
She's picking out names
I hope none of them are mine
It's not as much fun as Costello's old ballads and dance numbers, but it's just as convincing.
Lament if you must the end of Elvis Costello's youthful spontaneity, the two-minute rockers flowing endlessly from his pen and mouth. At least he hasn't lost his energy and style — he's just turned them in a slightly different direction. Whether he goes off the deep end in future albums remains to be seen.
The one trend on Armed Forces he should guard against is the over-production that seeps into the album. Nick Lowe has produced all of Elvis Costello's albums, and has always done right by his music, but on Armed Forces the fiddling just begins to interfere with his simple music formulas. Costello's voice may not be beautiful, but it's strong, warm, and conveys angry emotion better than any other popular singer's today. There's no need for it to be buried in muddy mixing, bounced from one stereo channel to another, or treated with synthetic echo.
With three records to his name, each a masterpiece, only the most prejudiced or uninformed listener will dismiss Costello as "just another new-waver" or "a boring punk." He's new wave only chronologically, and Armed Forces makes use of a diversity of styles most performers today are too incompetent or unimaginative to handle. If he can hold his paranoia in check, and prevent it from freezing all humanity out of his music, Elvis Costello may well go on to dominate the next decade the way his namesake dominated the '50s. At least until 1984, that is — if he can outwit the thought police and the "goon squad." Wish him luck.