Images are those elusive things that all musicians are forced to cultivate in order to reach the limelight. But many images come back to haunt the very people who sought them for so long; a case in point is Elvis Costello.
Indeed, it is quite ironic that Costello was long forced to nurture the idea of punk rock to the forefront of his music in order to augment his cult-like following. The first to respond to Costello were the music critics, who immediately latched onto his powerful lyric arrangements, and the punkers, who were turned on by the anger of his music. His first two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, stayed nicely within the limits of these two very diverse groups of listeners.
But now with his third LP, Armed Forces, Costello shows ideas of breaking out of his new-wave mold, and is finding the going quite difficult. In fact, it unfortunately appears he may have painted himself into a corner before realizing it. A recent appearance at Nashville's War Memorial Auditorium with his band, the Attractions, demonstrated how Costello has unwittingly narrowed his scope while preparing for bigger and better things.
The concert was billed all along as punk fare, with no attention directed to Costello's unique and addictive musical talents, and in keeping with his self-made image, Costello delivered a punk show. Perhaps more than any American rocker of the decade, Costello has something to say, and it is sad that the deeper significance of his intense, bitter and often savage lyrics are sometimes overshadowed by the typical punk effects — a shouting vocal style, a haughty, glaring demeanor and the general air of "staged" chaos.
Occasionally Costello breaks through the usual anti-punk defenses of the general listener with his searing intensity and pounding rhythms, which are a blend of older rock cliches and a unique lyric voice. Armed Forces is not as hindered by overmodulation as his earlier efforts, and Costello therefore seems to be following the latest musical trend, which has seen many of the more talented new-wave groups crossing over into "respectable" rock without losing their drive. Such cuts as "Green Shirt" (about the agonies of war in Northern Ireland) and "Two Little Hitlers" (a very personal ego saga) display his profound nature in a much crisper, less offensive manner than previous work. Even "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" is a "nice" song.
Again, Costello has something to say in such numbers. Much more than Blondie, The Cars, et al, while maintaining the very '70s-cynicism of those groups. He has a lot to offer fans of what music was really meant to be — a true combination of words and sounds. It seems a shame that he can't shake off the punk label he used to gain an audience for something more important.