Elvis Costello isn't kidding when he calls his current album and tour Armed Forces. Complete with lyrical bullets, a live show of shell-shock intensity, and guerilla tactics, Costello is storming America on the strength of his most sophisticated album to date. And stirring a bit of controversy while he's at it.
Costello justly earned a Grammy nomination as "Best New Artist" with the kind of hell-bent intensity rock hasn't seen since it's dawning days. Early versions of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly seem likely role models, as Costello's first LP echoed the chunky rockabilly of those days.
But as This Year's Model exclaimed, this Elvis is stepping quickly into the future. On Armed Forces, he confronts it dagger in hand.
Costello here fashions tense psychodramatic love songs, Angst-ridden ballads, and all-out assaults on political situations peculiar to Britain, but not without some relevence here ( as in past songs like "Radio Radio"). To him, life is a brutal power struggle and his music displays it.
This album tests the limits of rock. Steve Naive's keyboards flutter about at the very edge of the melody, while Costello constructs trickily structured melodies which keep the listener constantly on edge.
His live show is no less intense. With his band, the Attractions, Costello reels out sets of sonic intensity, and with each visit to the States, he has refined his performing art. Few performers today are as compelling, and I'm sure very few as committed as Costello. Every song is sung with conviction, and the effect (coupled with brilliant staging) is staggering.
His new single, "Accidents Will Happen," will be a crucial test of Costello's campaign and also a good analogy for recent controversy.
After a show in Columbus, Ohio, Costello had a row with Steve Stills' band In a hotel bar. It resulted in Costello's insulting Ray Charles and James Brown with racial slurs during a heated argument with singer Bonnie Bramlett.
Amidst cries of racism, following publication of an article on the scene, Costello called the strangest press conference I've ever attended.
"I am not a racist," he declared, claiming his words were crafted to be as offensive as possible to end the argument (all they did was start a brawl). "If they'd been art fans I'd have said Tolouse Lautrec was a dwarf," said Costello, who said that "if you use emotive words in song or conversation, and somebody misquotes you, it can make you look like an angel or Adolf Hitler."
He apologized to the artists whose names he'd "taken in vain," and with surprising humor fended off some of the anger which had boomeranged back at him in the wake of his verbal attack.
Costello is indeed a curious young man, and may find something to think about in the touchstone song of this album and tour, "What's So Funny About (Peace, Love and Understanding)?"
But he is a talent not to be denied, and with all he does to further that (despite his "accidents"), the name Elvis becomes even more fitting.