By 1979 it seemed that Elvis Costello couldn't write a bad song or make a bad record. With two successful albums under his belt expectations were obviously high. Spending a good amount of time on the road, EC and The Attractions were a tight unit that had only improved over time.
The album's original title was going to be Emotional Fascism but was later changed to Armed Forces and the title couldn't be more perfect. Not only does the album deal with global and domestic turbulence (mostly in the form of dysfunctional and unsatisfying relationships) but the title also works as a metaphor for the band themselves. They're tight, precise, and darn near flawless in execution.
Like his two previous albums, Costello opens with a number that immediately grabs you in the form of "Accidents Will Happen." It still remains one of his finest pop gems and it's a personal favorite of mine. Right way it's apparent that this record features a more pop-oriented sound than its predecessors and Elvis makes it sound easy by churning out one catchy song after another.
"Oliver's Army" was a well-deserved hit and Steve Nieve makes this track what it is. His furious piano line is captivating and appealing, carrying the song on a wave of pop melodies that has to be heard to be fully appreciated. "Party Girl" and "Big Boys" continue the trend with bouncing melodies and Costello's brilliant lyrics.
In fact, Armed Forces might just be his one of his finest lyrical ventures to date. The wordplay, hidden meanings, contradictions, and sense of unease are all tied into the record's unifying theme: that military struggles and relationship problems can be seen as one and the same. It's a bleak picture but the writing is so strong and the songs are so much fun that you don't feel guilty about singing along to a song that states, "I want to chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket." Obviously it's not all meant to be taken seriously and Costello does a great job of mixing themes and messages in such a way that you never know if he's referring to political or personal power. Unraveling the lyrics is part of the fun of his writing and this album is chock full of those moments.
"Green Shirt" is a simple number that's complimented nicely by Pete Thomas' snare rolls and Nieve's signature keyboard playing while bassist Bruce Thomas gets a chance to shine on "Busy Bodies" and "Moods for Moderns."
"Two Little Hitlers" is another classic theme where Elvis describes two people in a relationship who are constantly trying to dominate each other: "Two little Hitlers will fight it out until one little Hitler does the other one's will." His pessimistic view of relationships is in full force here but you can't help but appreciate his brutal honesty at examining the darker and seldom seen aspects of modern relationships and power struggles.
The closer "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" is a classic cover of a song by producer Nick Lowe. To this day EC's version is still the most famous and well-known, taking the irony of the song's content and giving it a serious delivery that's both funny and a little unsettling as well.
Armed Forces, along with My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, still ranks as one of the best rock trilogies in history. Elvis still remains a great songwriter and would go on to deliver many other masterpieces but it's hard to deny that in 1979 he and The Attractions were at their peak. Their playing is nothing short of perfect and Costello's songwriting was branching out into more complex and sophisticated territory.
It's a slice of pop perfection from beginning to end but it also ended up threatening to put Costello into a box that would have stifled him creatively. Fortunately he knew what he was doing and his next album would prove to be both a bold and successful experiment. Armed Forces is a powerful reminder that Elvis and his army were here to stay. Don't miss it.