After three albums, the Elvis Costello pose is wearing a little thin. On previous discs, his whining misanthropy was offset by an ominous organ and drum-dominated backing and by some incisive social comment. However, on Costello's latest effort, Armed Forces, we find the man's hard edge gone, the organ replaced (for the most part) by rinky-dink piano runs, and lyrics barely rising above cleverly meaningless babble. Stripped of the underpinning supplied by the aforementioned components, Elvis Costello's art pales. The persona of the tortured, alienated nihilist has been replaced by that of the tortured alienated high school nerd. This album begs the question: has Costello nothing new to say or has he never had anything to say?
I would opt for the first interpretation. It's obvious that Costello (it's hard to call him Elvis) still has the same obsessions: paranoia ("Better cut off all identifying labels / before they put you on the torture table," "She's picking out names / I hope none of them are mine"), misogyny ("Big Boys"), and paranoid misogyny ("Busy Bodies" among others). There's also a military motif thrown in for good measure (the title "Two Little Hitlers", "Senior Service," "Goon Squad," "Oliver's Army"). But none of the themes are carefully developed; they only emerge through offhand references. Unlike Dylan, who uses throwaway lines to set us up for his knockout punch. Costello delivers only throwaway lines. His lyrics, which were not crystal-clear to begin with, are cryptic on this album. There's plenty of wordplay here ("I get hit looking for a miss," "A death worse than fate") but wordplay in a vacuum doesn't tell us much. What are we to make of pronouncement such as "It's all so calculated, she's got a calculator," of "accidents will happen, but only hit-and-run"?
Musically, Costello continues to make good use of mid-sixties pop devices: the Beatlesque (circa Abbey Road) fade-out in "Party Girl," the Zombies-like opening of "Green Shirt" and the Byrds-like rhythm guitar on "Busy Bodies." His songs are also more melodic now. However, this may work to his disadvantage. The jagged, ragged rhythms of the first two albums would perhaps have been more appropriate, in order to help us forget the lyrics, or at least to lend them some force.
There are songs on this record that afford some hope for the future and lend credence to the view that Elvis Costello is not simply a poseur. "Oliver's Army" is a jaunty number extolling the virtues of the armed forces. Not only is the army a haven for the jobless ("if you're out of luck or out of work, we could send you to Johannesburg") but it takes you to exotic places like Palestine, Hong Kong and China. "Two Little Hitlers" is a song that mines the military metaphor of the album's title; it deals with psychological warfare on the sexual battlefield. "I will return," intones Costello, MacArthur like.
Armed Forces' final track, "(What's So Funny 'bout Peace, Love and Understanding" (written by Nick Lowe, who produced the album) is so good it doesn't really belong here.
Conceptually, it doesn't stand up, since Elvis Costello has about as much credibility as Idi Amin when it comes to peace, love and understanding. However, the song itself is so strong, and the band's attack so determined, that it just blows away everything else on the disc. It bodes well for things to come. Remember, Elvis Costello will return.