Writing this in the last days of 1978, I am almost relieved that Elvis Costello's Armed Forces won't reach radio stations and record stores before January. With his This Year's Model still ringing in so many ears, the prospect of a forward leap as audacious as this one is positively jarring. Unlike his superstar elders who take years to ready each new platinum contender, Costello has played hard and fast, vaulting within a few months from a brash, riveting debut (My Aim Is True) to the razor-sharp distillation of its style on This Year's Model.
Armed Forces arrives less than a year and a half after his first, yet it embodies a dramatic shift in recording for the songwriter and his potent band, the Attractions. Much of the first two albums' immediacy stemmed from producer Nick Lowe's skill at cutting live, with Costello's vocals and the band tracks cut simultaneously and overdubs restricted to vocal backing and instrumental repairs. In contrast to those eight-track wonders. Armed Forces was cut over a month, not a week, of sessions, with Lowe applying his expertise as a more theatrical, often mimetic pop master.
Lead and backup vocals are over-dubbed, multiplied, and panned across the mix, yet the subtlety and variety of the recording is by no means limited to studio technique. It may well be taken by more literal New Wavers as a suspect nod toward commercial strategies, yet Costello has never really eschewed pop heartlands, he's celebrated them. In that sense, this new palette fits perfectly into his evolution.
The Attractions emerge as a far more varied ensemble than one might have expected. As a writer, Costello flashes a new melodic sophistication, implied in the earlier material but now fleshed out by a lusher, more eclectic instrumental approach. Without draining the tracks of their past spare, staccato rhythm arrangements, the keyboard/guitar symmetry of the Attractions is expanded by keyboardist Steve Naive's newly elegant fugal excursions and the LP's wider range of voicings. Costello proves equally adventurous on guitar, partly a result of the increased harmonic invention of the songs themselves.
If Armed Forces represents his most ambitious music, its lyrics show continued growth as well, with Costello's barbed language now fused seamlessly with the nervous rhythms and sudden rhapsodic releases of his songs. Thematically, he generates a constant tension between the often lively, major-key momentum of the playing and the harrowing world his narrators inhabit. Like their predecessors, these songs are violent, intimate encounters, yet the sexual hysteria, psychotic alienation, and homicidal rages that propel Costello's characters are now psychic motifs used as both cause and effect in a collapsing world. He is concerned more than ever with the political backdrop of a decaying Europe he so acidly creates. Indeed, the alleged original title for the LP was "Emotional Fascism." It is one of the few revisions I might question, for it exactly describes the central theme of the record.