Like any noteworthy performer, Elvis Costello keeps expanding the range and quality of his performance.
He debuted in late 1977 with the raw, exciting My Aim is True, and expanded on his accomplishment with 1978's This Year's Model, a more refined and fulfilling effort.
Now he has come up with Armed Forces, an album that makes Costello fans draw an extra breath at first listening but proves to be his most challenging, dynamic and striking effort.
It's a more complex and intricate effort, hence the initial startling effect. But Costello handles the songs with the same intelligence and raw insight which we have quickly become accustomed.
This isn't the same simple, almost three chord attack taken by Costello on his first two outings; rather, it's a more orchestrated musical exercise.
Don't let the new complexity of the new music confuse you. Costello is still as fresh, powerful and sensible as ever; only now there's a bit more method to his musical genius.
Added to the music of Armed Forces is layers of background vocals, fully developed guitar riffs and even the occasional use of a synthesizer.
Costello and producer Nick Lowe reportedly spent nearly a month recording the album. It's short by most standards but an extended period when compared to the usual week put in on Costello's other albums.
The result: Something different from other Elvis Costello albums but still inventive and refreshing.
Costello continues to display superb writing talents, ranging from statements about growing old ("Senior Service") to yarns about days in high school ("Chemistry Class"), military life ("Oliver's Army"), a haunting tale about growing-up ("Goon Squad"), an up-tempo composition about society ("Moods for Moderns") and about the antics of two friends ("Two Little Hitlers") are other songs that are examples of Costello's range as a songwriter.
If one part of Costello's music is to endure, it will be his songs. As performer he is invigorating and refreshing; but as songwriter he is more expressive and displays a greater range than anyone else in pop music today.
Unfortunately, Armed Forces probably won't bring Costello the popular support he deserves. He has been unable to come up with a song that will catch the ear of the listening public-at-large like Bruce Springsteen, another darling of pop music critics, has been able to do.
But that is the beauty of Elvis Costello. He plays his music for himself. Raw, straightforward and uncompromising. It's a pleasure that we are able to listen along.