"As I walk through this wicked world looking for a light in the darkness," occasionally I find one. In the confusing and disgusting fall of 1977, Elvis Costello, born Declan Patrick McManus, cut through the confusion trying to be amused rather than disgusted even though everything means "Less Than Zero." Everything except his lyrics.
My Aim Is True hit its target dead center. This little man of convictions would give no quarter about what he and society preached as right. He knocked down. the male macho myth and scoffed at the legend of female sensitivity. He would not stand for the suppression of expression of thought, emotion or biological needs. In "Waiting for the End of the World," God was even asked to act more responsibly: "Dear Lord, I sincerely hope your coming 'cause you really started something."
This Year's Model had "The Beat" you couldn't resist With a new band that could "Pump It Up" higher than ever before, Elvis could focus a sharper image of the alienation experienced in relationships, and expose the ills of society with increasing depth. He gunned down materialism and violence "Living in Paradise." "This Year's Girl" and "Lipstick Vogue" smudged the image of Madison Avenue and the cosmetic industry (Elvis once worked in a vanity factory). He announced on "Radio Radio" that the medium is the mush, and he battered mental cruelty with "Little Triggers." The English version contained "Night Rally," that issued warning against taking night classes of the racist National Front, and "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," which had Elvis snubbing his nose at high society. He lashed out at emotionless relationships in "Lip Service," because that's all those who are only "going through the motions" will get from him. Every time I dug my ears into his songs I unearthed another gem of an idea Elvis had lodged in the layers of this solid-as-a-rock record. It spent more time on the turntable than any other before it.
Armed Forces has a tough act to follow, since TYM was many critics' top choice of 1978. The initial reaction was mixed from the fans and critics alike. A few raved about it. Most thought it was very good but it did not meet their expectations. Some (women I know) said it wasn't vicious enough, others thought there wasn't enough guitar on the album to suit them. To please some I think he would have had to re-release TYM under a different title. Like Chaplin, who continued to make silent films after the advent of talkies because he could say more without sound, Costello understands how to create more with less. His arrangements work perfectly, so why make the songs play second fiddle to guitar for guitar's sake. Some wanted this LP to rock as hard throughout as TYM did. Costello's statement on radio over a year ago that "you can have strength at any volume" addresses that criticism adequately.
Steve Naive's versatility on keyboards is showcased as the solo instrument throughout the album and it is the nuances in his playing that provide the atmosphere for Costello's songs to breathe in.
"Accidents Will Happen" sneaks off of side one and snags you with all its hooks; standard placement of the hit single. "Little Triggers" concerned itself with pain verbally inflicted by lovers, but here he warns, "It's the damage we do and never know, it's the words we don't say that scare me so."
Steve Naive's cheery organ and pianowork (ABBA influence) on "Oliver's Army" provides the perfect ironic counterpoint in a song about the victim of a mercenary recruiter's sales pitch.
In "Senior Service" Costello treats the death industry, insurance companies, nursing homes and funeral parlors with the disdain they deserve.
The plastic disco world and its superficial patrons provide the board for his verbal darts in "Moods For Moderns": "I will be your stranger just pretending."
Elvis hangs more of society's dirty linen out for everyone to hear on his musical clothesline in "Big Boys." With surgical precision he dissects the macho myth with which our elders have infected us.
Military metaphors sound out the battle cry against "Busy Bodies" getting nowhere. "Temporarily out of action" and "With the best intentions you are nothing but a nuisance" provide more lip service to those still lust going through the motions.
"Who put their fingerprints on my imagination," he asks knowingly in "Green Shirt" as he addresses attempts to influence our thoughts by television.
The models our parents provided us get recalled in "Goon Squad": "Some grow up just like their dads, and some grow up too tall. Some go drinking with the lads, and some don't grow up at all."
You better be ready for an explosive reaction and the "final solution" when you mix your mind with Elvis's in his "Chemistry Class."
The power struggle in relationships is the concern of "Two Little Hitlers." You will love me! Emotional fascism for sure.
A truly pathetic and all-too-familiar relationship is sketched out and sensitively filled in by Elvis in "Party Girl." She has a poor self-image, just a party girl, "just like a million more all over the world,'' who will settle for anything in "disguise of love." Though they're not right for each other she insists "We're so hard to find" and clings to an empty relationship — "Give it just one more try, give it a chance." Party boy answers that it "starts out like fascination, ends up in a trance." He's trapped in a "grip-like-vice" because he's guilty of craving his slice ("don't you know I'm an animal" — "Hand In Hand"). She'll "never be the guilty party-girl" by allowing herself to be touched or allowing him to touch other party girls. He doesn't want to get married yet, nor does he want to lose her. Noteworthy here is the bassline almost exactly like in the Beatles' medley on side two of Abbey Road. An intentional allusion, methinks.
On the last track Elvis lets the notes ring with authority from his Fender Jazzmaster, Naive's organ swirls ominously in the background, and the Thomases' rhythm section charges ahead with the force of an armored car. Costello's angered and tortured voice wants to know "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?"
Is this album better or worse than the last? Is a neutron bomb better than an atomic borub? They both do the job effectively, one just uses a newer technology. No matter, Elvis has given us another light to make life's darkness a little more navigable.