Ten years ago, I thought It necessary to fight ideological fanaticism. Tomorrow it will perhaps be indifference which seems to me to be feared. The fanatic, animated by hate, seems. to me terrifying. A self-satisfied mankind fills me with horror.
— Rayond Aron, The Opium of the Intellecturals, 1962
Elvis Costello is driven by the same dialectic that concerns historian Aron above—the clash between action without purpose and life without action. It's this dynamic that makes Elvis' third album, Armed Forces, an exotic listening experience, and moreover, the best farewell-to-the-seventies record we'll get.
The album combines a me-generation perspective (the glossy I-am-the-artist conceit that permeates the disc) with one that promised fiery revolution in the eighties ("You can please yourself, but someone's going to get it" from "Green Shirt"). Musically, it's a compendium of the first quarter century of rock 'n' roll, running from the earnest romanticism of Costello's handsome lookalike, Buddy Holly, to the pop spirituality of the Beatles, to the bitter anarchy of late seventies punk.
But I don't think Costello had a political treatise or a musical history in mind while he was making Armed Forces. He made it for people who love to dance above almost anything else in the world, who don't care what the neighbors say if they turn their stereo up full blast at 4 a.m., and who are reciting all the lines from his albums before they've even had them for a week. Luckily, Armed Forces is good enough to make us all a little crazy.
Costello draws you in with hooks more potent than the Beach Boys ever dreamed of, holds you in a death grip, and subjects you to all his dirty nightmares. "I don't want to hear it 'cause I know what I've done," he laments in the record's stirring opener, "Accidents Will Happen." Still, with the able assistance of crack producer Nick Lowe and his band, the Attractions, Costello has fashioned a delightful, even uplifting, piece of pop. The conflict between music as merry as it comes and lyrics from the darker side of one's soul reveals a tormented artist, a man who's desperately trying to resolve his inner conflicts in public, in his music. It makes for terrific rock 'n' roll, but it also lends a haunting ambiguity to the whole proceeding.
Perhaps to further show off his complexity, the artist has included a far more subdued version of "Accidents Will Happen" on the Live at Hollywood High EP that comes with the early pressings. Without a zippy arrangement to counteract his mournful vocals, lines like "It's the damage that we do and never know, / It's the words that we don't say that scare me so..." are far more hard-hitting.
Costello is smart enough to avoid getting trapped in successful formulas. His first record, My Aim Is True, was a tremendous hit critically, if not commercially, but he nevertheless abandoned its stark pub-rock sound for the lush, raving guitar-and-keyboards sixties pop of This Year's Model. And now, he has replaced those simple sounds with a more esoteric mix of drums, bass, keyboards, and (very little) guitar. Thus, it's not surprising that "Green Shirt" sounds a little bit like Kraftwerk with its (seemingly) synthesized percussion and regular though infrequent bursts of rapid-fire drumming. For the first time, Costello's music is just as strange and unpredictable as his lyrics; though fun, it adds to the overall confusion.
"Party Girl" starts off as a rather simple ballad ("See the party girls look me over, / See them leave when the party's over ..."), but becomes more chaotic as Costello's indecision becomes more clear ("I don't want to lock you up and say you're mine, / Don't want to lose you or say good bye..."), finally ending with a direct cop from Abbey Road as he sings, "I can give you anything but time..."