Elvis Costello's third album, Armed Forces, will probably rank as one of the best rock 'n' roll records released this year. It shows less of the inconsistency and murkiness that plagued My Aim Is True, and This Year's Model respectively. Costello and the Attractions, his backup band, are more of a unit than they were on their previous outing.
With all of these betterments, it would be difficult for Armed Forces to be anything less than above average. It's quite a bit more. Opening with "Accidents Will Happen" and closing with Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding," the album never lets up.
"Accidents Will Happen," the record's opener, thankfully stands up to repeated playings. The song is getting a lot of airplay for good reason. The arrangement is quirky but not consciously so. Costello's treatment of the song is more personal than, say "Alison" from My Aim Is True. You can't imagine Linda Ronstadt covering this song.
The first side continues with "Senior Service." Nick Lowe's production does a lot to make this cut more effective. Costello's unique delivery is mirrored by the instrumentals.
With "Senior Service" and "Oliver's Army," the presence of the Attractions becomes increasingly evident. Even though they performed with Costello on This Year's Model their instrumental attack was less coherent than it is now. The band's improvement has been quite swift. On My Aim Is True producer Nick Lowe used a San Francisco band, Clover, because the Attractions weren't competent enough to do what he wanted. That was barely a year ago.
The band shines on "Big Boys." Costello has furnished them with simple lyrics and a nearly unplayable melody. They manage to pull it off stylishly.
Costello and the band owe a lot to Nick Lowe. His production of Armed Forces is an integral part of its success. His work with Costello is a textbook that Brian Eno should have read before he did Talking Heads' latest. Lowe realizes that rock 'n' roll is simple without being minimal. He doesn't clutter the tunes with a lot of noodling electronics. The result is that a song succeeds on its own merits.
"Green Shirt," the penultimate song on the first side, helps to explain why Costello was so heavily hyped after his recording debut. Few moments on My Aim Is True display as well as "Green Shirt" why Elvis Costello is an artist that can't be ignored. "Shirt" is a tense song but Costello controls the tension and anger here more ably than he did on his first two albums. His performance is well-distanced but not cold.
The second side of Armed Forces is less unified than the first. "Goon Squad" opens the side with a blast of energy that is appropriate after "Party Girl," the ballad that ends the first side.
The next three songs on the side aren't as distinctive as those that surround them. "Busy Bodies," "Moods for Moderns" and "Chemistry Class" contain a few deft touches. But they aren't as memorable as the other songs on the side.
Two Little Hitters," the next to last song on Armed Forces, is wickedly ironic. Costello's lyrics are open to many interpretations. The phrasing and use of language are intriguing even without knowing exactly what everything's about.
Armed Forces ends with Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." It is different from anything else on the album. Costello's voice is deep and booming. The arrangement is denser than the rest of the disc. Here Lowe manipulates Costello to achieve a devastating new version of this old Brinsley Schwarz tune.
"Peace, Love and Understanding" leaves one wishing that Armed Forces would go on forever. If you're lucky, it can. Columbia has included a bonus record in a limited number of copies. Elvis Costello Live at Hollywood High contains live versions of "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives."
This little disc is definitely a bonus. The live version of "Accidents" is more forceful than the studio cut. Consisting of Costello, a piano and intermittent squeals of feedback, the straightforward treatment reveals the song's power.
"Alison" live is a revelation. This is the first recorded version that Costello and the Attractions have done together. Unlike the studio cut, the live "Alison" is more of a band song than an Elvis Costello song.
"Watching the Detectives" appears on the flip side of the bonus disc. Clocking in at 6:06, it is more relaxed than the studio version which is half as long, The Farfisa organ and guitar feedback are charming reminders of early sixties British rock 'n' roll.
Although his rise to competence took more time than his rise to prominence, Elvis Costello has proven that his music should be taken seriously. lie and producer Nick Lowe know a lot about pop styles and use them to their advantage. In a decade chocked with musical posturing, it is refreshing to see that the future of rock 'n' roll is in good hands.