NEW YORK — In the course of 1978, Elvis Costello established himself as about the most important figure in British new-wave rock — so important, in fact, that he pretty much obliterated the very notions of punk or new wave, at least as they apply to him. He was too oddly bookish-looking to be a punk; the image, instead, was of a computer salesman crossed with Buddy Holly. And he was too fervently traditional in his adherence to rock basics to be an artsy new waver. What he was was an original, like all great rockers. But he hasn't really yet broken through to a mass audience in this country. That kind of breakthrough isn't the only criterion for importance, to be sure. Given the number of triumphantly unimportant artists who do top the charts, it might almost be considered a mark of quality.
Still, there were reasons both for his success with new-wave fans and the hipper writers and FM programmers, and those same reasons help explain his lack of massive success. Costello is hardly dulcet as a singer; his voice is harsh and husky, and for ballads especially (e.g., "Alison") the results could grate the ear. In addition, he stuck severely to starkly simple. hard-edge arrangements. and he seemingly refused to polish his music in any way that could be considered a sellout to blandness. His songs themselves, both lyrically and musically, were remarkable, and his personal passion went a long way toward making them work in concert. On record that same passion could sound hectoring, and his well-publicized anger about everyone and everything severely limited his appeal.
All of which makes his third and latest album, Armed Forces (it's due to be released this week), all the more interesting. It was said that Nick Lowe, the producer, Costello and his band, the Attractions, had spent a full month in the studio — short for your typical superstar, but downright finicky by his own previous standards. Word had leaked that he had changed the title from Emotional Fascism to the still-clever, but safer, Armed Forces. Maybe Costello was capitulating to the star system and record-company pressure he had so virulently denounced, a suspicion reinforced by reports that he seemed to be carrying on a lifestyle not much less luxurious than that indulged in by those he had been denouncing just a few months before.
Well, on a first few hearings, Armed Forces would seem to resolve rather neatly whatever contradictions may exist between purist passion and greater accessibility. If anything, this is still more passionate than accessible. The songs are strong, lyrically, and Costello's voice is no more soothing than before. What's different are the arrangements, cleverer and more complex than ever before.. But they're genuinely clever: Costello is really masterly in creating hook-filled settings that stick in the mind. Since his musical range is as wide and inventive as ever, this becomes a disk that anyone interested in where rock is going must hear.
And there's a bonus, too. In the first 200,000 copies, Columbia Records is including a 12-inch, three-song disk called Live at Hollywood High, which captures Costello in fine concert form. The disk is of special interest for two reasons. One, it contains a wonderfully intense version of his reggae song, "Watching the Detective," in which the band spits out this syncopated music with irresistible rhythmic alertness. And it also contains "Alison," and it was this performance that gave Linda Ronstadt, who was in the audience, her ideas as to how she should phrase the song in her own version. Depending on how you like that version (on her Living in the U.S.A. album), you will decide whether she learned her lesson for good or for ill. But at least this bonus disk inadvertently documented the meeting of two seemingly different rock-and-roll sensibilities.