It is Christmas time, 1977. I am watching Saturday Night Live. Elvis Costello, the musical guest, is in the first few bars of "Alison," a song on his first album. His stirring performance of "Watching The Detectives," in which, pigeon-toed, he maniacally stared out of his bookwormish eyeglasses through the television screen, has convinced me that Elvis Costello is the most unusual rock artist I have ever seen. Suddenly the music stops. "I'm very sorry, ladies and gentlemen," he says. "There is no reason to play that song." He then proceeds to perform "Radio Radio."
At that moment this writer became and Elvis Costello fan. It mattered not that changing the song was probably planned ahead. The neccessity of a reason for Mr. Costello to play a song impressed me.
Elvis Costello's recently released third album Armed Forces, also impresses me. The LP was to be called "Emotional Fascism," but a change was made, presumably to avert controversy. One feared that toning down the name of the album might indicate a modulation in Costello's new wave brand of music. But this is not the case. The lyrics on Armed Forces have just as much raw emotion in them as those on his other two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model. For Example, Costello vents his frustrations in "Busy Bodies." "You want attention / You try my patience / With best intentions / You are nothing but a nuisance / Busy bodies, busy busy / Getting nowhere, nowhere, nowhere, nowhere." In addition, Costello's arrangements have, from album to album, evolved into a more sophisticated genre, although they were never of the straight-ahead two chord variety, a la The Ramones. Moreover, Mr. Costello's back-up band, The Attractions, has improved. Nick Lowe, who produced the first two albums, has again done an effective job. Mr. Lowe also wrote one song on the album, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding."
For this listener, there are no weak songs on Armed Forces. Particular tunes that stand out are the powerful "Goon Squad" and the lively and rhythmical "Moods For Moderns." In addition, "Accidents Will Happen" will probably prove popular with the progressive FM radio stations.
I must add that if you do not like Costello's previous works, you will waste your money by buying Armed Forces. But for those of us who enjoy his music, this LP is well worth its price That is not to say that Armed Forces is a classic album — it is by no means. Instead, Mr. Costello has simply released an excellent album, not as striking, of course, as his debut effort, My Aim Is True, but that is only because we had never heard him before. Armed Forces marks the progression of a great musician. I can only conclude that Mr. Costello needed a reason to make this album, just as he needed a reason to play a particular song on Saturday Night Live in 1977. One hopes that Elvis Costello has reason enough to continue making albums in the future.