(At presstime, New York Rocker was able to preview the forthcoming Elvis Costello album, Armed Forces, due for a January release. Here are some initial reactions.)
Simply stated, this is Elvis Costello's smoothest and most commercial record ever. Keyboard instruments are in the forefront and hard-edged guitar nearly vanishes. The most startling change, however, is in the lyrics. Elvis lis no longer the angry, biting individual observer/victim. Now his songs are more generally directed and relate to the world at large, resulting in a less powerful emotional impact.
"Accidents Will Happen" kicks off the record in a smooth, single-like fashion. "Senior Service" contains an oriental motif and a bouncy organ chorus reminiscent of the Fleshtones. "Oliver's Army" features another majestic keyboard riff, a driving beat, and a Ronnie Spector "Be My Baby" ending. For the most part the songs are simple with basic instrumentation, but more complex backing vocals/harmonies than on past Costello albums. Still, one is forced to notice the fact that the album rolls along without anything startling jumping out and grabbing you. If this is Elvis' most commercial record, it's also his least challenging and least satisfying. "Green Shirt" is one of the more interesting tracks, featuring a heartbeat-like electronic beat, and gritty vocals from Elvis. "Big Boys" and "Party Girl" round out side one in a fairly innocuous fashion.
The flip side begins with "Goon Squad," a biting, surging song which continues Costello's military imagery. Throughout the album Elvis uses traditional military situations and relationships to illustrate his feelings. "Busy Bodies" is another smooth commercial piece, and "Moods for Moderns" is a stop-start funky track. "Two Little Hitters" is a reggae-tempo song concerning the domination of personalities.
At presstime, it appeared that two tracks from the English release, "Sunday's Best," and "Chemistry Class" would be dropped in favor of a reworking of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" This track is probably the tour de force on the album with a pulsing, driving, backing track, overlayed by Elvis' tortured, spitting vocals. It's powerful and moving.
After listening to Armed Forces only a few times, I find myself disturbed by the mediocre calibre of the songs and arrangements. The lyrics are still somewhat hard-hitting and inventive, but they seem overly contrived to conform to the overbearing military imagery theme. There are no new musical masterpieces, and there's a significant dose of repetition.
If My Aim Is True was Elvis' 50's album, and This Year's Model was his '60's album, then Armed Forces may just well be his '70's album, and like the decade itself, is lacking in vision, direction, and meaningful creativity.