On Armed Forces, Elvis Costello's third LP, there is a song called "Two Little Hitters" which accurately sums up the album's theme. Costello sings: "Two Little Hitlers will fight it out until / one little Hitler does the other one's will." Throughout the LP Costello uses imagery of war, militarism, and politics to illustrate his vision of conflict between men and women.
This record was produced by Nick Lowe (as were Costello's previous two) and he seems to have been given free reign. Lowe delights in details; little embellishments like the finger snapping in "Moods for Moderns," and the sound of explosions in "Good Squad." At best, Lowe 's production touches are brilliant; at worst they are merely clever, sometimes distracting. Armed Forces has plenty of each.
All of the songs but one (the over-produced "Chemistry Class") are very catchy; musical hooks are a specialty of Lowe and Costello.
In composing, Costello borrows heavily from the music of the 1960's and many of his melodies and riffs are vaguely (if not explicitly) familiar. He has taken to giving his songs a softer sound, with chord changes that are reminiscent of the early Beatles. However, Costello's style is distinctive and very much his own. His "borrowing" does not reflect a lack or imagination, but a particular creative strategy.
There are a number of excellent songs on this LP. "Senior Service," "Oliver's Army," "Goon Squad," 'Moods for Moderns" and "Two Little Hiders" are all strong, solid, memorable songs. My favorite cut is "Mood for Moderns," which Costello sings brilliantly. He may be the best rock 'n' rock vocalist since John Lennon.
Whether Elvis Costello will ever release another LP that carries the impact of his first record, My Aim Is True is questionable. His second, This Year's Model didn't and neither does Armed Forces. Both, however, are fine albums and should be judged on their own merits.
Armed Forces shows Costello to be growing musically. He experiments with his singing, playing, and particularly with his arranging have yielded strong results. It is a good, substantial record, which sounds better with each listening.
(Colorbline James is an Oswego-based songwriter and performer.)