Yeah, this guy really is something special — but that doesn't guarantee you're going to like this album. Most people I know find it takes several listens before they understand Costello's songs. His remarkable lyrics only gradually reveal themselves with repetition, like a photographic print developing, and even when you've got the big picture they're usually suggestive at best and sometimes downright opaque. On Armed Forces the music is similarly challenging. Some songs are not apparently melodic at first listen, but are so richly constructed that once familiar they're more durable than most.
Elvis' lyrics form puzzles full of impressionist detail, and it's an exasperating and rewarding game trying to figure out what's going on in each case. You can read all the detailed psychoanalysis somewhere else; basically the situations are dramatic, frequently even menacing, and often concern intra-sexual conflict. His one-liners are among the most intriguing in rock: "Your mind is made up, but your mouth is undone" switching to "Your mouth is made up, but your mind is undone"; "I was down upon one knee, stroking her vanity." "Green Shirt" must be the first pop song in history to use the word "quisling."
Armed Forces offers tight, novel tunes with some fine hooks. On numbers like "Accidents Will Happen" (the catchy single) and "Green Shirt" (an odd, machine-gun disco beat) The Attractions' playing is vigorous and crisp. "Party Girl" is a gorgeous flowing love song in the "Alison" tradition, while "Chemistry Class" shows off Elvis' talent for linking musical chutes and ladders. Sometimes, though, song sections don't join so congenially, leaving the listener off-balance, as on the quirky "Moods for Moderns." (One friend who uses his brains too much explained that these songs are full of "concealed hooks," which sounds like a contradiction in terms to me. Show me a song whose hooks are concealed and I'll show you a song that fails.)
There's a terrific bonus in this package, an EP including live versions of "Accidents Will Happen" and two of El's most famous older songs. "Alison" is a heartbreaking ballad ("your pretty fingers lying in the wedding cake"), while "Watching the Detectives" shivers with the grainy foreboding of a Raymond Chandler novel ("she's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake").
The main drawback to this smart, inventive album is that sometimes it's just not too attractive (aggravation seldom is). Elvis can be awfully earnest, and when delivering vindictive lines in pinched, scornful tones, the guy doesn't seem particularly likeable. Sometimes I find myself put off by the tender bitterness even as I'm admiring his skills. Perhaps even that is a tribute to the force of his articulation.