Armed Forces was originally titled Emotional Fascism. The last minute switch perhaps indicates Elvis C.'s ambivalent but escalating flirtations with commercial success. Still, the revised title stands as a terse summation of Costello's expanding vision.
The metaphor of militarism pervades this, Costello's third superb, compelling work, as a brutal sign of the times. Elvis can no longer be brushed to one side as a malevolent, though absolutely convincing, woman-trodden misogynist-troubadour, Buddy Holly-fifties style, the cringing persona that haunted his warm-up, My Aim Is True. Nor can he be classified within his self-imposed limitations of the stunning This Year's Model, whereby Elvis pushed the frustrated social critic to the limit, precariously playing jaded devil's advocate to the vulgar fripperies and carnality of the lipstick vogue, pump it up set he loathes so much.
To the contrary, Elvis has now begun to fashion a vision of "the big picture" the way truly ambitious creators are want to strive. More and more he has become the detached and very moral observer, scanning both the globe and the heart to upend hypocrisy at the personal and political level. Formerly patient and potential psychopath, Costello sings as parapsychologist and politician on Armed Forces, at once grasping and intertwining "emotional fascism" on a human, international scale.
Take for instance "Two Little Hitlers," another in a seemingly endless Elvis catalogue of domestic drama effectively reaching for minor tragedy without an ounce of pretension and full of gallons of coffee-soaked black sobriety: "Two Little Hitlers will fight it out until / One little Hitler does the other one's will."
Or there is the bouncy "Oliver's Army," an archetypal pop rush of ecstatic ABBA-processed melody that sagas modern day Cromwellian mercenaries. Sings a disgusted Elvis atop the shiny surface of Spectre-like sound emanating from Steve Naive's keyboards (which form irresistible urges to dance the way "Lip Service" did last year):
"Only takes one inch of trigger / One more widow, one less white nigger... Hong Kong is up for grabs / London is full of fabs / We could be in Palestine over-run by Chinese lines / With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Times."
Almost any random line or set of lines in this sweeping album could in fact be quoted to Costello's benefit. He is simply that talented a songwriter. His puns are court jester witticisms constructed from the verbiage of contemporary phraseology. "Have you got yourself an occupation;" he asks stand-offishly on "Oliver's Army." "Are you ready for the final solution?," he demands of an estranged beloved during the fetching "Chemistry Class." "I'm a guilty party, girl," he confesses to this year's Alison on "Party Girl," a tour de force ballad that at the least equals the 1977 model.
From the TV screen to the social hubbub, Costello takes clever, urgent aim with his cheek-dwelling tongue. Dictatorial polemics abound. "Big Boys" is the politics of sex, a bassy mire of ominous consequence, the true-blue troubadour's irrevocable web of entangling alliances between hatred and romantic aspirations. Snideness oozes out of every vitriolic pour of the singer as he mouths frustration in the face of a present mechanized by cheap pleasures: "I am starting to function in the usual way / Everything is so provocative / Very, very temporary."
"Green Shirt" pulsates as a sparce oddity about media busy bodies at the news hour ("Better send the Begin letter to the big investigation / Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?"), a reference back to the farcical world of world news and politics "Oliver's Army" attacked.
"Goon Squad" rumbles as another overtly militaristic view, this time of the career world: "I could be a corporal into corporal punishment / Or the manager of a large establishment." Mirky undercurrents abound via Naive's trash pop organ and Nick Lowe's eccentric production, always a force to be reckoned with on any Costello outing.
For a little relief from the vice-like grip of Elvis' didactic barrage "Busy Bodies" jangles with the snappy sarcasm of Beatles' "social commentary" and ends with beautiful Beach Boys falsettoes. As always, Costello balances mid-sixties pop rock basics with his menacing style to produce his special blend of uneasy tunefulness.
"Senior Service," a reference to a popular brand of English cigarettes of course fumes with more sardonic puns atop more urban surfer harmonies. "Accidents Will Happen," the album's lead track, defines the rage and range of emotional fascism. A chimey exercise in the futility of both words and action, brooding Elvis numbly announces: "You used to be a victim, now you're not the only one."
The victims are out in full timbre on "Chemistry Class," one of Costello's more melodramatic closet romances and which displays his characteristic chilling ability to splice frayed nerves with mechanical equipment for a truly "industrial complex": "Sparks are flying from electrical pylons / Snakes and ladders running up and down her nylons."
Adds Costello with parenthetical wisdom, "If it wasn't for some accidents, some would never learn." The sense of unease that began the album in "Accidents" has been specifically underscored. Not only is our emotional fascism far-flung, but ultimately beyond our control, fundamentally an accident, not a result with root causes. Accidents will happen.
Nick Lowe's own "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, And Understanding" ends Armed Forces on a brilliant note of irony. A lazy, drug'n'sun dried cliché has been uprooted from its sunny locale and been planted right in the middle of the urban garage-land. Byrds guitar twangs, high speed drumming, and Elvis' impassioned voice lends the song a riveting mid-sixties appeal with the impact of "Radio, Radio."
"As I walk through this wicked world…," grimaces the little man of boundless intensity to begin the song, and the only question that can be asked is how much longer can Costello keep pumping out almost flawless records?