Louisville Courier-Journal, January 28, 1979

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Armed Forces

Elvis Costello

Marc Zakem


But, speaking of listening, listen to this: Elvis Costello's This Year's Model won first place on the Village Voice's critic's poll of top 1978 albums, the most thorough poll of its sort in the country. And not only that, it won by the largest margin in the history of the poll.

The album wasn't heard by as many people as "Baby Hold On," but for those who did listen, the impact was immeasurably deeper. The record, for many people, made 1978 different than it otherwise would have been.

Costello is the artist that Eddie Money will never be. And because of his potential impact, even though he's not selling as well as Money now, he has a better chance of eventually becoming a star.

To help things along, his new album, Armed Forces, has also been recently released in order to get a jump on 1979. As was the case between 1977's My Aim Is True and 1978's This Year's Model, the new album's sound is radically different from that of its predecessor. In fact, the new changes at first seem even more daring than the last one.

Between My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, the rough production and session men were replaced by a clean sound and a permanent back-up band dominated by a 1960s organ and tighter, faster arrangements. As radical as the change was, it wasn't really all that chancy.

The second album moved in the same direction as the first, only faster and louder; a case of "If you liked 1977's album, you'll love this year's model."

The new album, however, appears to backtrack, or change direction altogether. Production is even more lush, and synthesizers are used. The other players function more as background musicians than as part of any real band, and most of the songs are noticeably slower, moved to the tempo of "Allison" or "Little Triggers."

However, the daringness of the changes is deceiving, and the calculated move is not nearly as risky as it originally appears to be. First, those of us who already love Elvis will make every possible attempt to listen to and like Armed Forces.

In addition; the calmer pace can only add listeners from the mainstream who in the past have seen Costello as "new wave," and new-wave music in turn as too frantic.

This appearance of seemingly taking risks carries over to at least one song on the new album, a Brinsley Schwarz cover, "What's ' So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding." Originally a '60s-llke social statement, Costello turns the lyrics into part of a personal one-on-one confrontation: "I ask myself / Is there only pain and hatred and misery?" The listener's first reactions are a show of amazement and a sign of relief that Costello pulled it off.

But, upon reflection, one realizes the song, in Costello's hands, couldn't be about anything but a personal conflict. His whole manner and style has always bespoken such an attitude. Now, if he could have sung the song and retained the original meaning, that would have been a feat.

How good is the remainder of the album? I just don't know yet. Unlike Money's one-play wonders, all of Costello's albums not only bear up to, but demand, repeated playings before the songs begin making an impression.

I will say that nothing automatically struck me as powerfully as last year's "Radio Radio" originally did (which, to be fair, I had seen performed on television and in concert before the song was released).

Even "What's So Funny," as good as it is, fails to get my pulse racing. And although "Accidents Will Happen," "Senior Service," "Green Shirt," and "Party Girl" are becoming increasingly great with each listen, others are too even, lacking drama or dynamics.

And one, "Chemistry Class," is Costello's most overwritten and self-conscious song to date. No doubt Costello wouldn't mind being a star, but he'll become one on his own terms.

Armed Forces, despite its changes, still sounds different from anything else being played today.

Stardom for Money is an end in itself; not because he likes to play music (though he probably does), certainly not because he has anything to say but only because he wants to be a star.

If Costello at times appears too nonconformist or self-conscious, he's still superior to Money, for whom conformity is all and self-actualization is nothing.


The Courier-Journal, January 28, 1979

Marc Zakem reviews Armed Forces (and Eddie Money's Life For The Taking).


1979-01-28 Louisville Courier-Journal Scene page H-5.jpg
Page scan.


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