Now that the novelty of Elvis Costello's strange appearance and somewhat gimmicky stage name has worn off, it is becoming apparent that his music also has something to offer. Costello's new album, Armed Forces, is his best album yet, and he started out hot.
Armed Forces is already up to position 17 on Billboard's album chart after having been released for only two weeks. In addition, Armed Forces is Costello's most commercial album. Fortunately, this does not mean he sacrificed any of the wit and individuality that made his first two albums masterpieces.
Costello has become more sophisticated musically. His backing band, The Attractions, has evolved beyond the rhythm guitar and skating rink organ sound that dominated the last album, using such diverse instruments as the synthesizer and the grand piano.
Nick Lowe's full, rich production on this album is also excellent. Lowe could best be described as Phil Spector with a sense of humor. For instance, the Rachmaninoff-like pianos on "Oliver's Army" (a charming little ditty about mercenaries) which sounds so engaging here would sound silly elsewhere. Costello's cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's so Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding" recalls the grandeur of Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run.
Costello's songwriting is still excellent. "Accidents Will Happen," which is included on both the album and the bonus live EP, is a tough but tender ballad and one of his best yet. The live version, in which he is accompanied only by a grand piano, is especially moving.
"Party Girls" is reminiscent of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" and should be a classic someday. The lyrics, as always, are full of razor-sharp wit. On "Two Little Hitlers" for instance, he compares fighting lovers with battling dictators.
Every song on Armed Forces is a gem, and at least one of them should be a hit single. Elvis Costello is truly an artist whose time has come.