Elvis Costello is pursuing Bob Dylan's career in reverse: each album he records is more political, more lyrically dense and less melodious than the previous one. The reason, of course, is that the '70s are not the '60s — Dylan made his mark as the weather vane of a radical era, while Costello had to establish his success in a time of empty-headed nihilism.
Costello did include a few heavy political songs on his first two albums: My Aim Is True had "Less Than Zero," which attacked British Nazis and British TV; and This Year's Model had "Lipstick Vogue," a lambast against the fashion industry, and "Radio, Radio" ("Radio is in the hands of such a bunch of fools who try to anesthetize the way that you feel"). But his third and latest album, Armed Forces (Columbia JC 35709), is a frontal assault on government oppression and militarism. And who better than a former computer programmer to attack the inhuman designs of the military-industrial complex?
"Senior Service" is about the pomposity and competitiveness of executive officers ("I wanna company car ... I wanna place at the bar, 'cause there's always another guy to chop off your head and watch it drop into the basket"). "Oliver's Army" is about the pathetic desperation of noncoms and grunts ("All it takes is just one itchy trigger / One more hero, one less white nigger"). "Goon Squad" is about the insidious evil of government thugs ("They're givin' you the eye ... you better say goodbye").
The best songs on the album are the more typical Elvis stuff, "Accidents Will Happen," another cynical, bitter love-hate song in the "Alison" vein ("Your mind is made up but your mouth is undone"), and the passionate masterpiece "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," written by the album's producer, Nick Lowe, a '60s-style protest song with great clanging guitar like on the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn."
There's too much organ and not enough guitar on the album, but the bonus EP single, Live at Hollywood High, is even weirder — Elvis crooning "Accidents Will Happen" and "Alison" Sinatra style, backed by cocktail-lounge piano. The flip side of the EP is "Watching the Detectives," with Elvis sounding ominously like Elliot Ness on The Untouchables.
The album's cover, a fake Jackson Pollock, perfectly illuminates what's inside — crazy, alienated, sociopathic rock 'n' roll. And you can dance to it.