It's been a good month for Elvis Costello. A vast hoarding of his be-spectacled face dominated Tottenham Court Road in the place of Julie Andrews, his shows at the Dominion were a success, and almost every reviewer plugged This Year's Model as one of the best albums of '78. Not bad going for an unremarkable-looking computer operator from Hounslow, especially when coupled with the adulation he's been getting from the States. And he has followed it all up by taking on minimal competition to release The First Important Album of '79, Armed Forces (Radar RAD14).
Before even playing the album, it becomes clear that Costello has got just a little too confident, and just a little too clever. It comes in expensive and useless packaging that guarantees that the record slips from your hand scattering bits of paper across the floor. Is this a clue to some hidden concept, some subtle theme? There is a picture of elephants, which on the face of it have little common with armed forces, there are postcards marked "don't join," which could tie in, and there's a slogan "emotional fascism" on a sleeve showing Elvis and pals at "our place" (a posh villa) and "yours" (a boring semi). All tediously mysterious, but luckily the songs — of which there are very many, both on the album and an enclosed "free" EP — are more interesting, though not always more comprehensible.
Armed Forces is Costello's most relaxed, mellow and gentle album yet, at least as far as the musical content is concerned, with a dozen new songs that mix quirky, bouncy and attractive melodies with subdued, rhythmic and controlled playing, and slick harmonies. All ideally suited for his following in laid-back America, and happily interesting enough to avoid any MOR tags, though a long way from the raw bite of My Aim Is True.
As ever, what makes it so very different is Costello's skill as a lyricist. In the past he's been notable for his emotional honesty, and the range of his private and public concerns. This time, he's a lot more obscure, packing the songs with verbal tricks (lines like "a death that's worse than fate") or a jumble of surreal images that often build up a sense of menace or unease against the pleasant melodies.
There's a concern for things military in songs like "Senior Service" and "Oliver's Army" (which appears to end with a jumbled view of world politics), there's a characteristic blend of social and personal comment in "Party Girl," a mixture of Dylanesque imagery and English nightmare in "Sunday's Best," and a very weird, highly effective piece called "Green Shirt" which uses a gently pounding bass, and staccato drum interruptions.
Like his early hero Dylan, Costello does not believe in lyric sheets. Each listening reveals a little more, and after playing this lengthy collection through at least ten times I'm more impressed than ever. He may be getting overconfident, but there are precious few new lyricists in his league.