Going through a pile of late 1977 Columbia album releases, I had stumbled onto My Aim Is True, Costello's first album On the cover he looked like a cross between Buddy Holly and computer programmer. (In fact. Costello had been a computer programmer) Also, Elvis Presley had just died, and anyone thrusting himself into popular music at that time using the name “Elvis" seemed fairly presumptuous.
So, without a listen, Costello was put back in the pile.
But then I read a highly favorable review, went back and listened to the music instead of looking at the cover, and within days was telling everyone I could about Elvis Costello. We had lost one Elvis, but we had gained another, whose snarl and style rang true for the late 70s.
On that first album, Costello came out sounding like no one else, from "Watching the Detectives" with its strange mixture of reggae and secret agent soundtrack-style themes, to "Alison," a surprisingly tender song later covered by Linda Ronstadt, to "Mystery Dance," a short yet immortal rocker.
This Year's Model came out only a few months later and featured a harder-rocking Costello, now playing with a group called the Attractions.
Now Costello and the Attractions have released Armed Forces, which was actually nominated for a Grammy.
While My Aim Is True served as a powerful sampler, and This Year's Model extended Costello's rocking sneer Armed Forces showcases his songwriting talents. There are 11 songs on the album none of them over 3 minutes and 33 seconds, which itself seems a conscious reaction on Costello's part to the longer, wandering cuts that have characterized 70s rock.
Costello's lyrics deal mostly with personal relationships. He eyes his subjects, including himself with a cold, steady eye and successfully conveys his insights with a practiced lack of unnecessary emotion.
His melodies are strong, unusual and fresh. not unlike Steely Dan's. But while Steely Dan's music move's smoothly with a jazz feel. Costello's melodies and lyrics are underlaid with a jerking rhythm that bring to mind a windup toy. While you don't boogie to Costello, he does give you something to which you can listen.
Expect the unexpected with this man. Effects from the 50s rock style, especially the stretching of a single syllable into four or five, occur regularly through the album. Yet other parts of his music come out of nowhere, dividing each two- or three-minute song into distinct movements in a style reminiscent of the Doors.
The listener is struck by the Beach Boys-style harmony at the end of "Busy Bodies" and how a drum crack flies through the void on that song: the English music hall-style piano on "Oliver's Army," the surging bass line on "Goon Squad": and the harpsichord introduction and final organ swell on "Green Shirt."
"Peace, Love and Understanding," the final song and the only tune not written by Costello (rather being written by his producer Nick Lowe) comes across as the only "conventional" rock song on the album. A good old 4-4 beat and wall-of-sound guitars push through straightforward verses and bridges as Costello sneeringly asks "What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding"
How about that? The creep cares.