Elvis Costello makes the kind of music that, when I try to explain to friends why it is so compelling. I inevitably lapse into the same overworked hyperbole that I find objectionable when it comes from the mouth of another.
Armed Forces is full of the same insights into human nature, packaged with absolutely addicting melodies that characterized this British pop rocker's first two albums.
On this latest, however, Costello has physically taken a step back from his subject, and the result is a more cohesive statement on the victimization of the individual by society. In song after song, Costello delves into the pitiable state of so those who are in over their heads, "caught in the suction" as he puts it in "Big Boys," one of the most fetching on an album full of seductive tunes.
Whether singing about the much-maligned "Party Girl" or a bored would-be mercenary in "Oliver's Army," Costello exhibits for the first time in his works a real sense of empathy in the plight of his characters. But don't go too far and expect sympathy. As ever, he remains above the fray and while he does not reject his characters, neither does he embrace them.
Costello's musical sense is sharpened, if anything, by the presence of producer Nick Lowe, who possesses one of the keenest pop sensibilities going. Costello has always had a talent for matching his biting lyrics with superior tunes. This is particularly evident in "Senior Service," the tale of a senior citizen gradually being pushed out of his job and even his place in society ("It's the breath you took too late, It's the death that's worse than fate").
Costello is especially concerned with the possibility of a pre-programmed existence, and the fear that one does not have control of one's environment. The title of the album, Armed Forces, indicates he has launched an all-out assault on this syndrome. "Who put the fingerprints on my imagination?" he asks in "Green Shirt," a song which deals with the distance between reality and fantasy in general and life on the television in specific.
The usual quotations of musical styles are again evident on this album. Listening closely, one can detect swatches of the Kinks, the Beatles, Dylan and others, a virtual synthesis of popular music since the mid-'50s.
At the risk of indulging in hype, I seriously doubt that a better album of music will be released this year.