"Oh I just don't know where to begin..." The first line in the first song on the first side of Armed Forces, that comment represents as appropriate a starting point as you're likely to come up with in discussing Elvis Costello's new album (also, his third). The whole endeavour is so ambitious, its scope is so wide-ranging and its elements are so diverse that once you attempt to become more specific, you're engaged in a process of abandoning possible angles. Necessary but unfortunate.
Whatever, this album is an irrefutable confirmation of Elvis' rise to a position of prime importance in the rock pantheon. This Year's Model was among last year's best albums by every relevant consensus and, though it's early days yet, Armed Forces seems like a certain candidate for the number one spot in '79. It's that substantial.
First impressions, however, are deceptive. It's not as immediate an album as either of its predecessors as Costello and band weave webs of greater complexity — and ambiguity —than any crafted within the last two years, bar on some of Dylan's Street Legal. Which is true both musically and — especially — lyrically. The overall sound is gentler, the execution more restrained and the ultimate impact less muscular or assertive than that of This Year's Model — an album which was, incidentally, one of the finest examples to hand of high-energy rock being performed with consummate musicianship and skill. But once beneath the surface, the imaginative power behind the new project gradually becomes more and more evident.
On Armed Forces, we find Elvis adopting even more assuredly the mantle of detached commentator — though detached is a relative concept. He hasn't entirely abandoned his penchant for subjecting personal relationships to the most rigorous and sometimes jaundiced scrutiny (in the process of which activity, in the past he often became bitter, vitriolic and acerbic beyond the point compassion could ever allow), rather incorporating his insights about the vagaries of personal interaction into an examination of wider issues.
Armed Forces as the title suggests is about institutional violence, about the manipulation of the vulnerable and needy by self-serving political bosses — a process which can be more or less subtle, depending on the particular circumstances. But it's also an album about the depersonalisation of relationships — "emotional fascism," which is inscribed on the inner sleeve, was apparently intended originally as the album title; it's a phrase which throws considerable light on almost every thing Elvis has written to date, though it's uncertain just where the axe falls in some cases at least.
"Accidents Will Happen" opens the depersonalisation file. It's all in the terminology. "There's so many people to see / So many people you can check up on / And add to your collection." Which is the way plenty of people see sexual activity. "Accidents Will Happen" he offers, "But only hit and run." In which context, consideration of the consequences of any action becomes problematic. "It's the damage that we do and never know / It's the words that we don't say that scare me so." To elaborate on which... once people adopt predatory attitudes to sex, then the self-hatred which often results can find an outlet in disgust with a sexual partner during or after the actual act of "making love." And still people continue with the charade, doing... damage they'll never know, since it's a hit and run experience.
Presumably you get the point: that Armed Forces ain't no easy meat. Elvis is past assuming that the self-righteous put-down is enough of an answer — or indeed that it's an answer at all. There's also a small matter of nitty-gritty lyrical developments, so subtle that many may fail to see them at first in the magical welter of the teeming music the Attractions lay down. Like, early in "Accidents Will Happen" he suggests "Your mind is made up but your mouth is undone," a line which re-enters later as "Your mouth is made up but your mind is undone..." And the shift does relate to the thematic development of the song.
However, there remains a suspicion often that, with this kind of clever device, Elvis is pulling out all the stops stylistically and as a result forgetting the imperative for meaning. Certainly the lyrics throughout are consistently oblique, often to the point of impenetrability. But it's clearly for effect, as the wilful obscurity perpetrated by the frequent mixing down of the vocals further illustrates. And what this much means, at any rate, is that you're going to have to work for your clues and besides, you best not expect that you'll come walking away with anything resembling solutions. Life ain't so easy and Elvis Costello knows it.
On the contrary, Armed Forces poses questions, questions and more questions. Which is hardly an unhealthy by-product of making fine music, when it comes down to it, either.
There are a couple of unreserved triumphs, the first of which is "Oliver's Army," a song about how poor boys are duped into signing on with The Model Army, which is performed over a hysterically jaunty fairground organ and boasts a melody that's insidious beyond belief. Hear it once and you'll be humming it. The recruitment officer cajoles: "No there's no danger / It's a profession, a career / Well it could be arranged / With just a word in Mr. Churchill's ear / If you're out of luck or out of work / We could send you to Johannesburg."
"Green Shirt," however puts even that in the shade. A sequel to "Watching The Detectives," it touches on both personal and public paranoia, with underlying implications of indoctrination and brainwashing, and the role played by the media in propping up the system.
The opening verse brilliantly encapsulates the process of simplification for which television is usually responsible: "There's a smart young woman on a light blue screen / Who comes into my house every night / She takes all the red, yellow, orange and green / And turns them into black and white"' . . . And when things are imagined to be either black or white (the way the authorities see it, by implication), it can get rough. "You can please yourself / But somebody's gonna get it / Better cut off all identifying labels / Before they put you on the torture table." Or as he puts it later: "Better send a begging letter / To the big investigation / Who put these fingerprints / On my imagination?"
The musical context for all this is suitably eerie and menacing — a regulated bass pattern working like an electronic pulse over stark, almost brutal, drumming. And everywhere that faint echo of Beatles, a cross-reference underlined by Steve Naive's orchestral, textured keyboards. The net effect is demonically addictive, Elvis cooing the refrain: "You tease, you flirt / You shine all the buttons on your green shirt."
"Sunday's Best" is another great achievement, a kaleidoscopic view of the trivia which, hung together, evoke all that's terrifyingly ordered about the English Way of Life. A hurdy-gurdy-esque 3/4 mocks at the litany of Little Things We Have Come To Expect From Life: all the idiotic props and habits and familiar landmarks. The spirit of the tune is akin to Ray Davies' social commentary, while Randy Newman's "Rednecks" is another obvious reference point — but so too is The Radiators "Sunday World," which represents a more outraged comment on the same basic problem. In Costello's case, it's the mildly manic restraint in the delivery that makes the emerging picture horrific: "Stylish slacks to suit your pocket / Blood sports and picture lockets / Sleepy towns and sleepy trains / To the dogs and down the drains / Major roads and ladies smalls / Hearts of oak and long trunk calls / Continental interference / at deaths door with life insurance."
Which is enough in-depth stuff for you to be going on with. I don't doubt. And from it all should emerge a picture of just how dangerous is the ground any critic treads on in attempting to make ultimate judgments. Armed Forces is a challenging work beyond what anyone might have expected — and very seldom does Elvis obviously fail to deliver. "Senior Service" is clever, short and hardly great, though undoubtedly effective and catchy. "Big Boys" successfully examines the inculcation of values from older brother to younger. Spasmodic and jerky like a Talking Heads track, it's compelling and not a little chilling .. Finally in the first side "Party Girl" has Costello wrestling with the contradictions in his own attitude to women / a woman, in the most "personal" song on the album.
"Goon Squad" is about the obvious implication of the title with reference to military affairs. Haunting and menacing, it's also tough and raucous, Nick Lowe's production here reminiscent of his work on Graham Parker's Stick To Me.
On the proverbial battle of the sexes, "Busy Bodies" is blunt and cutting, Costello brilliantly button-holing those who involve themselves in aimless mating games: "Now you're ready for a merger / with the company you're part of / you do the dirty business / with your latest sleeping partner." Sadly, the fact that sex is a positive force in itself never enters the picture.
Both "Moods for Moderns" and "Chemistry Class" are good — the latter cruelly so — before "Two Little Hitlers" rounds off the album by bringing together again the joint themes of "Armed Forces" and "Emotional Fascism." Costello depicts the inevitable outcome of a clash of two equally volatile, hostile forces: "Two little Hitlers will fight it out until / One little Hitler does the other one's will." Another great song, Ill leave the details to you to find out.
A final point: that the Attractions get equal billing with Elvis on the front sleeve for good reason; they're a great band, up there with Parker's and Dury's. And I've an especial fondness for Bruce Thomas' brilliant bass lines (he often sounds like McCartney did for The Beatles, only better).
Otherwise I think some of the case is made and open for interpretation. And there's a lot left that could be said. Fact is, I don't know where to end either. This could go on for another week.