Elvis Costello's new album, Armed Forces, is a dangerous flirt. Like the draw of a party girl:
Give it just one more try
give it a chance
starts like fascination
ends up like a trance
To a greater degree than either My Aim Is True or This Year's Model, the album pulls the listener in conflicting, but equally compelling directions. Neither the lyrics nor the music strike as immediately as Costello's earlier work; the album doesn't rock as hard, but it penetrates deeper. Its perceptions are paranoid, funny and near-genius.
The songs, shaped as brief puzzles, refer back on each other and fit together around images of nazism, corporate menace and adolescent sex. Starts like fascination.
Armed Forces invites the type of dissection that tempted many listeners of Bob Dylan's mid-sixties work. Both are eminently quotable, often bewildering and always as deadly comic as they are serious. And, with the work of both Costello and Dylan, each listening untangles another line, another pun, another insight.
But while Dylan's songs often threaten to short out from the array of symbols and images they incorporated, Costello's lyrics are more precise. His songs are definitely shorter and seemingly more to the point.
The overtly political "Oliver's Army" sounds like a commercial for recruiting mercenaries. ("If you're out of luck or out of work we can send you to Johannesburg.") "Goon Squad," "Senior Service" and "Green Shirt" revolve around military and-or corporate evil. Most of the remaining tunes " describe the mystery dance of male-female relations. "Two Little Hitlers" is a sitcom fusing all of this.
(One might reasonably question the humor potential of nazism. "She's my soft-touch typewriter and I am the great dictator" provides a partial answer. Much of the rest lies in Costello's delivery of lines like "are you ready for the final solution?" in "Chemistry Class.")
Such reduction doesn't do justice to the songs, however. They are all these things and more. And less. A series of shared images, including political and high school parties, severed heads and bodies and accidents, all in addition to the military and corporate entities running throughout, the songs explode off into different directions and back upon each other.
At the same time, Costello continually plays word games within the tunes. Changing choruses. Reviving cliches. Constant puns. ("I get hit looking for a miss.") Scrambling the I's and you's. Costello is precise in his ambiguity. He stands amid, but not always behind, his words.
In the music, Costello's slashing guitar has given way, under the production of Nick Lowe, to various keyboards. They have mobilized straight classical phrases, '60s quotes (the Abbey Road tag on "Party Girls") and Devo-like riffs into action. Playful melodies often couch the most threatening lyrics, further masking Costello's true aim.
Vocals are layered, in probably the most effective use of overdubbing rock has heard. No one would accuse Costello of possessing a "pure" voice, but, again like Dylan, he's a great singer, taking lyrics to places that a more technically proficient voice might disguise.
The direct power clashes that struggled on My Aim Is True and This Year's Model have evolved into a more complex psychological warfare on Armed Forces. They are no less brutal for that complexity, however, and fit well within the album's slogan and original title — emotional fascism.
Elvis Costello's music possesses power and lucidity, steeped in a healthy mockery of not only the world but himself. It's hard to ignore him.
I'm a guilty party now
and I want my slice
but I know you got me and
I'm in a grip-like vise
Ends up like a trance.
Elvis is king.