NEW YORK — In 1978 Elvis Costello established himself as about the most important figure in British new-wave rock — so important that he pretty much obliterated the very notions of punk or new wave, at least as they apply to him. He was too oddly bookish-looking to be a punk; the image, instead, was of a computer salesman crossed with Buddy Holly. And he was too fervently traditional in his adherence to rock basics to be an artsy new-waver. He was was an original, like all great rockers.
But he hasn't really yet broken through to a mass audience in this country. That kind of breakthrough surely isn't the only criterion for importance. Given the number of triumphantly unimportant artists who do top the charts here, it might almost be considered a mark of quality.
Still, there were reasons both for his success with new-wave fans and the hipper writers and FM programmers, and those same reasons helped explain his lack of massive success. Costello is hardly dulcet as a singer; his voice is harsh and husky, and for ballads especially (e.g., "Alison") the results could grate the ear. In addition he stuck severely to starkly simple, hard-edged arrangements and seemingly refused to polish his music in any way that could be considered a sell-out to blandness. His songs themselves, lyrically and musically, were remarkable, and his personal passion went far toward making them work in concert. On record that same passion could sound hectoring, and his well-publicized anger about everyone and everything severely limited his appeal.
All of which makes his third and latest album, Armed Forces (due to be released Monday), all the more interesting. One had heard that Nick Lowe, the producer, Costello and his band, the Attractions, had spent a full month in the studio — short for your typical super star, but downright finicky on his own previous standards. Word had leaked that he had changed the title from "Emotional Fascism" to the still-clever but safe "Armed Forces." Maybe Costello was capitulating to the star-system and record-company pressure he had so virulently denounced, a suspicion reinforced when one read that his lifestyle seemed not all that much less luxurious than that of those he had been denouncing a few months before.
Well, on a first few hearings, Armed Forces would seem to have solved whatever contradictions may exist between purist passion and greater accessibility rather neatly. If anything, this is still more passionate than accessible. The songs are strong, lyrically, and Costello's voice is no more soothing than ever. The arrangments are different, cleverer and more complex than ever before. But they're GENUINELY clever: Costello is masterly in creating settings that stick in the mind. Since his musical range is as wide and inventive as ever, this becomes a disk that anyone interested in where rock is going must hear.
There's a bonus. In the first 200,000 copies, Columbia Records is including a I2-inch, three-song disk, Live at Hollywood High, which captures Costello in fine concert form. It is of special interest for two reasons: It contains a wonderfully intense version of his reggae song, "Watching the Detective," in which the band spits out this syncopated music with irresistible rhythmic alertness; it also contains "Alison," and it was this performance that gave Linda Ronstadt, who was in the audience, her ideas of how she should phrase the song in her version, on her Living in the U.S.A. album.