The Mystery Dance for 1979 sounds like a step sideways. Armed Forces consolidates everything that Elvis Costello achieved with The Attractions on Last Year's Model. Some of the songs and arrangements here would have fitted on the last album; others seem designed to "stretch" the band and demonstrate its flexibility. There's less gut attack, less overall aggression this time; instead a more relaxed display of energy and precision, of the kind that springs from unusual self-confidence. And the confidence is largely justified. Who else currently makes 12-cut albums without a single duff track?
But it's still a sideways step. Costello has moved away from the put-down-by-numbers approach of his earlier songwriting towards — what? A "concept"? The elaborate album package loudly announces one, maybe even two or three.
Take the title, which connects with some of the graphics on the awkward wrap-around sleeve, and with references to militarism in several of the songs. It might also connect with the instruction "Don't Join," printed on the Attraction postcards that are flimsily attached to the sleeve; perhaps Elvis is telling us not to sign up in the services. Then there's the cover painting of elephants, which doesn't seem to have anything much to do with the lyrics but doubtless relates to the leopard spots and zebra stripes that infest the album label. Not to mention the obligatory fake-surrealism of the inner sleeve, or the fairly grim collage of modern art styles (from hard-edge abstraction through abstract expressionism to op and pop) that garnishes the inside of the main sleeve.
Recent years have given everyone plenty of practice in ignoring overkill packaging and concentrating on the actual music, but in this case the conflicting implications of the (unsigned) artwork raise provocative questions about the songs inside. Neither the artwork nor the songs would stand as what the Surrealists called "actes gratuites," things in and of themselves: both are riddled with far too many outside references for that. and yet any attempt to square them off with the things they refer to founders on their obliqueness or outright obscurity.
The album opens with Costello singing that he just doesn't know where to begin as the preface to what sounds like a retraction of some sort: "You used to be a victim / Now you're not the only one / I don't wanna hear it / Cause I know what I've done" The song is "Accidents Will Happen," also featured on the live EP that comes free with the package, in a simpler and more moving version.
And it closes with another autobiographical 'statement': "Two little Hitlers will fight it out until / One little Hitler does the other one's will / I will return / I will not burn..." ("Two Little Hitters"). I have no idea what those lines might mean to their author, but if they have a 'public' meaning it must be that he is trying to transcend the motifs of recrimination and vindictiveness that have certainly dominated his work thus far.
Sure enough, most of the other songs here either use a fictionalised "I" or look outwards at society or the world at large. It's a refreshing turn. and it would be even more refreshing if Costello grasped the courage of his convictions and came out with a coherent point of view. There's no rule that says a rock song has to be "about" something, but if you start singing about being "in Palestine / Overrun by the Chinese line" then your consumers have a right to start asking questions.
To take one example, "Sunday's Best" uses a naggingly jaunty calliope-style backing for some quite credible English social commentary in the Ray Davies tradition until the lyric gets lost in melodrama about severed heads under the bed. It then hits the verse: "Listen to the decent people / Though you treat them just like sheep / Put them all in boots and khaki / Blame it all on the darkies..." What does that mean? Does it refer back to conscription? (There are some bizarre time transitions elsewhere, as when Costello refers to walking in polka dots and chequered slacks.) Or is it supposed to invoke some threatening future? Either way, it's at best feeble and at worst offensive.
Similarly, "Oliver's Army" is just fine when it starts out as the reverie of someone dreaming of a career in the army, but it becomes specious when the regular army blurs into a mercenary force, and it seems to me to lose all credibility when it refers to Hong Kong being up for grabs in one breath and to Mr. Churchill in the next. Political acumen that's not, and neither does it offer an interesting historical perspective. I wish I could make more sense of it; I've tried and I've tried, and I'm still mystified.
If there is a governing "concept," it's probably the one signalled on the inner sleeve: "emotional fascism." It's a theme that Costello alternately evades and indulges, and the most promising thing about the album is undoubtedly the hint that he's beginning to get it into perspective. But his lyrics are still happiest when they move through genuinely random-sounding free-associations, at their best equal to anything by Eno. There are many highly memorable formulations in the wordplay: "I'm in a grip-like vice" ("Party Girl"), "It's the death that's worse than fats." ("Senior Service"), "There's a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes" ("Green Shirt").
And anyway, the music is strong enough to swamp virtually any lapses in the lyrics — literally so in "Goon Squad," whose words elude repeated hearings, and metaphorically so throughout. Costello's tunes are rarely original but invariably fresh, and even the outright lifts (like the Beatles' fade that ends Side One) have a grace worthy of producer Nick Lowe.
Steve Naive's keyboards. in particular, have a range and bite that is unique in contemporary rock; it falls to him to introduce most of the gorgeous cross-melodies that distinguish many of the songs, and he brings it off every time with terrific finesse. What's more, Costello's vocal phrasing is getting richer all the time (as is his stage presence, judging by last week's showings at The Dominion in London): listen to his handling of the rhythm of the long chorus line in "Moods For Moderns," or the expert mixture of bombast, sarcasm and quiet menace in "Big Boys."
Hell, whichever way it's moving, it's more excellent than not. Enough writing; I'm going to listen to it again. I can't do it any more, and I'm not satisfied.