Elvis Costello has, with his third successful album Armed Forces, entered the upper echelon of contemporary music influentials.
In addition, I hope, he has dispelled any notions in the minds of delirious nonbelievers that he is merely a temporary pigeon-toed media phenomenon of only minor musical notoriety. Costello has arrived, and he packs a mean punch.
No other popular artist can sing with such conviction and at the same time successfully market his aggression. Costello calls it "emotional fascism." I would say it's more like "hostility on vinyl." Whatever it is, it sells. He has sold out most of his U.S. tour months before schedule, and his new album is in the top five on many charts.
His hatred fills the hall during a live performance and spans the entire realm of human activity. Costello's capacity for anger is so great that he squeezes 12 or 13 irate songs onto each of his albums. The man has a lot on his mind.
Musically speaking, he and the band have never been more powerful. He still plays with the same three tattered looking Britons, but they've come together. "Power Pop" wizard Nick Lowe produced this effort and has almost flawlessly structured proper sequencing and timing for Costello's exceptional hooks. Most of the songs are not pretty but drive the message home. The guttural vocals, indecipherable at times, reach out and grab you by the throat.
"Moods for Moderns" is a typical bit of Costello's sordid social commentary. It echoes the ludicrous aspect of life that possesses this deranged Englishman. This is one of the few songs from the album that will get some FM air time.
"(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," a Lowe composition, is an atypical song for Costello, but is sung more viscerally than any song he's ever done. "As I walk through this wicked world, searching for light in the darkness of insanity, I ask myself is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred and misery? And each time I feel like this inside, there's one thing I want to know — what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?" he bellows. His expression of compassion on this track is singular on Armed Forces — you'd be hard pressed to find many more such examples on his first two works.
I can't help but notice Costello's preoccupation with Hitler and his ideals — references to Hitlerism on his three albums, it becomes painfully obvious. Could it be that he feels the same hatred for humanity that almost brought an end to the Jewish race? In the song "Two Little Hitlers," he calls himself the "Great Dictator." In "Chemistry Class" he asks, "Are you ready for the final solution?" and claims that he is "ready to experiment, ready to be burned."
In "Goon Squad" — the name given to the Nazi extermination corps — he cries, "you'll never get to make a lampshade out of me." In "Green Shirt" he warns, "You'd better cut off all identifying labels before they put you on the torture table." These are just a few of the morbid allusions to that tragic slice of history.
As the only true survivor of the British New Wave movement, Elvis Costello holds the banner for a whole way of thinking. If he chooses hostility and Nazism to be his watchwords, I hope his next album is a disaster and we never hear from him again. But songs like "Alison" and "You Belong to Me" are worthwhile. We will soon know the fate of Elvis Costello. Or he of us.