Record Collector, November 2002

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Record Collector


Armed Forces

Elvis Costello

Andy Neill

Having set out his stall in emphatic fashion with My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, Costello's "Angry Young Man" persona softened with Armed Forces (1979). Recorded in a mere fortnight, under the working title Emotional Fascism, producer Nick Lowe's glossy pop sheen employed multi-tracked vocals and polished arrangements, while the bespectacled visage was considered familiar enough to be replaced by an image of marauding elephants. The result was Costello (& the Attractions') loftiest commercial success to date, thanks to the trailer of "Oliver's Army" (which matched its parent album's No. 2 UK chart position). It also performed well Stateside, although Costello's infamous road-blitzed Ray Charles outburst nearly derailed all that had been achieved.

Occasionally, the punning title's love-and-warfare theme falls flat (the heavy-handed "Goon Squad"), but when it works ("Accidents Will Happen," "Two Little Hitlers"), the results are among Costello's finest. The wordplay is as sharp as ever ("it's a breath you took too late / it's a death that's worse than fate" — "Senior Service"), and there's a diversity of moods: "Green Shirt," a nebulous song about media distortion, narcissism and personal betrayal — apparently inspired by newsreader Angela Rippon — features a hypnotically taut rhythm, with Pete Thomas's snare pattern and Steve Nieve's tinkling flourishes. Then there's "Sunday's Best," originally written for Ian Dury, which baits the tabloid-reading "little Englander" to a 6/4 oompah, while "Moods For Moderns" marries sarky observation to stilted funk.

Paradoxically, in many ways, it's Costello's most "pop" album: the prominent Fabs touches — the Revolver-type "I know" vocal fade on "Accidents Will Happen," the "You Never Give Me Your Money" coda of "Party Girl" (possibly a sly dig at Costello's estranged courtesan, Bebe Buell), while Nieve's jaunty piano arrangement cloaking the anti-imperialism of "Oliver's Army" owes everything to Abba's "Dancing Queen."

This newly-fattened reissue features a 28-page booklet of Costello sleevenotes, lyrics and the garish, abstract sleeve illustrations. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" (originally credited to "Nick Lowe & His Sound" as the UK B-side to Lowe's "American Squirm") has been tagged on (as per the US version), while the extra disc includes contemporary B-sides, the gig freebie from the poorly-received '78 Dominion Theatre season ("Talking In The Dark"/"Wednesday Week"), alternate takes of "Busy Bodies" and "Big Boys," plus eight live tracks from Hollywood High (three of which were originally included on the bonus EP album giveaway), as well as set-closer "Chemistry Class" (from a Washington DC gig).

Armed Forces was a slick Trojan Horse concealing metaphorical themes of power, paranoia, guilt, fear, war-mongering and societal pressures, revealing that Costello was not content to remain this (or any) year's model. His next album, Get Happy!, was even further proof of this fact.

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Record Collector, No. 279, November 2002

Andy Neill reviews the Rhino reissue of Armed Forces


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