Costello's first two albums — My Aim Is True and This Year's Model — made it clear that only Billy Joel could rival him as a composer of catchy pop/rock melodies, or as an obnoxious little twerp.
Although astonishing examples of angry shake, rattle, and roll, the previous albums displayed little of the extraordinary virtuosity that distinguishes Armed Forces. Only the fact that a few of the tunes aren't up to Costello's usual standards keeps this album from being a masterwork of cold perfection.
Having finally exorcised his old high school nerd's obsession with revenging sexual rejections, the former computer technician with the wedge-shaped head has now come to dread the totalitarianization of Britain. Song titles like "Goon Squad" and "Two Little Hitlers," and lines like "You'll never make a lampshade out of me" create an ominous atmosphere evocative of W. H. Auden's doom-laden poetry of the late Twenties and early Thirties. And like Auden's early work, Costello's lyrics are intricate, witty, and often incomprehensible. (Let me assure the more gullible among you that I, of course, am not comparing their literary merits.)
Producer Nick Lowe has synthesized a precise, restrained sound — resembling that of the more dehumanized new wave bands like The Cars and Devo — that chillingly reflects the numbing fear of the future that suffuses the lyrics.
Costello has become a subtle, fluent vocalist, capable of singing "She's my soft-touch typewriter / And I'm the great dictator" as naturally as Linda Ronstadt gurgles "O000h baby baby." Proving themselves one of the world's more technically accomplished bands, The Attractions are led by bassist Bruce Thomas who sometimes ranges well above middle C to mellifluously carry the melody.
Unfortunately, the talents of Pete Thomas, the Gatling gunner of a drummer, are seldom fully exercised because the first eleven tracks don't really rock. How could they? Rebellion is at the heart of rock and roll and Costello seems too paralyzed with fear to put up much of a fight. Only the last song, Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," is actively defiant, and Pete Thomas drums up a firestorm to propel this simple but devastating rocker.