"The political crisis of capitalism reflects a general crisis of Western culture, which reveals itself in a pervasive despair of understanding the course of modern history or of subjecting it to rational direction." So read the liner notes to Armed Forces (CBS), the third album from Elvis Costello, England's chief threat.
Well, not really: E.C. would never speak so colorlessly. Those words are from The Culture of Narcissism, a new book by Christopher Lasch, but they could appear on the sleeve of Armed Forces (originally titled Emotional Fascism) without misrepresenting its motives. Along with his tight and tricky band, the Attractions — anonymous but not impersonal, drawing on the mid-sixties tinniness of the British Invasion, yet always insisting on a late-seventies punk intensity — Costello is out to define his times.
Now in his mid-twenties, he emerged in 1977. Far too weird in looks and stance to have had a chance before the Sex Pistols trashed all pop rules in London, Costello drew on punk's spirit but escaped its label. With My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, he was at once tuneful and scabrous, moving from the stance of a neurotic loser to that of a public rebel: Driven, he said, by "revenge and guilt," he mounted a brutally intelligent attack on the illusions of romance and the banality and apathy of popular culture. He was an original: bitter, cruel and funny, as much his own target as was anyone else.
The sound of Armed Forces is nowhere near as open as that of E.C.'s first two records: It's suppressed, claustrophobic, twitching. Two, sometimes three Costello vocal tracks fight over the songs; the singer may drop to one channel as the band seemingly heads off in another direction. But after a time, it becomes clear that just below the chaotic, nervous surface is a very stark and specific vision.
Armed Forces, as its title implies, is a political album, a set of songs about how we live out the politics of our age whether we want to, mean to, or not. A few cuts make this obvious, but they carry the least weight: "Oliver's Army," a hummable assault on British imperialism, goes little distance for hitting an easy target. The real burden of this record is in what appear to be conventional E.C. numbers about sexual conflict and recrimination, but which in fact explode those categories.
On this album, every moment of personal failure or unsatisfied passion is invaded by the cruelty and shamelessness of the political world: the heritage of mass murder our society wants to shrug off and can't, the heritage it pursues, in newspeak. Images of fascist, Stalinist and free-world crime — and of the crimes of totalitarian cults that have colonized spaces of doubt in Western society — are dragged from beneath the buzz of the news and out of our collective amnesia. The secret, unspeakable realities of political life, realities we seem to successfully deflect or ignore, rise up to force relationships between men and women, the essential stuff of ordinary life, to be redefined on those unspeakable terms. Costello isn't after culpability: "our" responsibility for, say, the Iranian secret police. He's after the way that that secret police, and those of other places and not-distant times, invisibly shape our sense of ourselves.
He offers "Two Little Hitlers," a ditty that may describe a marital struggle, or our shared future ("Two little Hitlers will fight it out until / One little Hitler does the other one's will"), or our shared past ("I will return," moons the singer, "I will not burn"). "Senior Service" is a vicious mix of sexual jealousy and terror — indeed the Terror, with E.C. as Madame Defarge. There is the amazing "Goon Squad," sung as a letter from a rising young man to his parents. He's full of reassurance ("I'm doing so well"), yet between the lines is a cry for help: "But I never thought they'd put me on the / Goon squad!" The furious pace of the song buries most of the story, and you don't know what this man is or whom he works for, but finally he swallows his guilt and squeamishness, and you can hear the victim-turned-thug talking: "They'll never make a lamp-shade out of me ———"
These are only hints; three remarkable songs can speak for Armed Forces. "Green Shirt" seems like just another love song: the singer biting out a defense against his lover's implied accusations of, perhaps, sexual inadequacy. It's slow and edgy in a classic Dylan vocal style, all tension: disturbing but you don't know why. Then terrible images begin to crawl to the surface: something about a quisling, about torture. Metaphor, you think — but not quite.
Better cut off all identifying labels
Before they put you on the torture table
'Cause somewhere in the quisling connect
There's a shorthand typist taking seconds of the minutes
She's listening in to the Venus Line
She's picking out names
I hope none of them are mine
It's sung in a sensitive, rushed, lover's plaint — and despite suggestions of 1984 in the lyrics, this is a love song, if love can survive its terms — and then Costello crashes out with a tougher line: "WHO PUT THESE FINGERPRINTS ON MY IMAGINATION?" His trembling, breathy voice is that of a man watching through a peephole as others fuck — or that of a man desperate to explain exactly why he has to kill you, just before he does.
"Chemistry Class" opens as a typical E.C. love/hate opus, itching with blocked lust and fantasies of doom. But you catch a bizarre, horribly brilliant line — "Snakes and ladders, crawling up her nylons" — and then this:
Ready to experiment
Ready to be burned
If it wasn't for the acci—
Then some would never learn
The broken pause on "accidents" is profoundly disorienting, but it's nothing compared to what you feel when, after a few listenings, you make out the lover's crooning refrain: "Are you ready for the final sol-oo-shun ...?"
Costello's merging of our political shadows with our private affairs suggests a secret, shared yearning for a real police state; a vengeful, guilty authoritarianism that, in the emotional fascism of everyday life, we are already acting out. Which is to say that if Costello is England's chief threat, he is so, to take a phrase from Norman Mailer, as a threat to an unearned freedom from dread.
All this demands some release, and with "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Costello provides it.
It's the last song on Armed Forces, and with it, the album cuts loose. This is the disc's one true rocker, a great car song, with the open feel of the early Byrds soaring through "The Bells of Rhymney": Even Costello's voice is fuller, less defensive. The performance blows away the murk and gloom of the record: Even as the song restates the fears of Armed Forces, it subverts them. Written and originally recorded by Nick Lowe in 1974 as the final parody of the naive hippie, the tune doesn't sound ironic here; it sounds like the last burst of faith from one who's seen too clearly for his own good. And, given the seamless irony that surrounds E.C.'s every move on the rest of Armed Forces, it makes no sense for him to close with more. The only reason for Costello to end with this song is because he means what it says.
As I walk through
This wicked world
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself
Is all hope lost
Is there only pain and hatred and misery
And each time I feel like this inside
There's one thing I wanna know
WHAT'S SO FUNNY ABOUT PEACE, LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING?
Costello's voice is thick, dumb and irresistible: He brings it off, every hopelessly corny word, perhaps because there is enough real evil in Armed Forces to make you need to have those words come off.
"I am the bastard child of an unholy union between fascism and Stalinism," writes Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of France's "new philosophers" seeking the source of the failure and betrayal of the last great rebellion of our time, that of Paris, May, 1968. "Hitler did not die in Berlin. Conqueror of his conquerors, he won the war in the stormy night into which he plunged Europe. Stalin ... is here among us, a stowaway in history. ... And I am writing in an age of barbarism that is already, silently, remaking the world of men." Elvis Costello & the Attractions will be performing up and down the West Coast this February; it should be something to see. For in a very different language — more elusive, and more convincing — this is exactly what Elvis Costello is talking about.