Recently in his New York Times column, rock critic John Rockwell noted that the new wave vanguard seems to have returned to rock and roll. He was writing about the recent Talking Heads and Blondie albums.
It is valid to apply that same comment to the new Elvis Costello album.
Costello generated tremendous excitement with his first album, My Aim is True, which, on its surface, sounded like an homage to mid '60s rock. But a close listening to the lyrics revealed a smoldering nuerotic tension.
Armed Forces, the new album, lacks the urgency of its predecessors. Perhaps some of the problems stem from production, like the last two. Forces was produced by Nick Lowe, who mixed Costello in as dynamic a fashion as has been heard recently. The new LP sounds compressed and muddled.
A definite hindrance is the overemphasis on Costello's voice. Costello has become as intense a singer as Bruce Springsteen or David Johanson, but he can't carry the group.
Another problem brought on by this is the guitar chords. In the studio, with dubbing, Costello could sing straight through the whole album, but such luxuries don't exist on the road. Costello needs a guitarist to add a little punch.
In keeping with this return to rock, the album's songs are longer, and on "Accidents Will Happen" there is a mellotron or some other string effect. This is a dramatic departure from the uncompromising minimalism that characterized Costello's appearance on Saturday Night Live.
This is not to say that the album is a write off, several songs meet the high standards Costello set on his first releases.
One, "Senior Service" is a classic power pop song with an irresistable Dave Clark keyboard sound. Another is "Party Girl," which is the only song on the album with good background vocals. But as distinct from new wave or power pop, "Girl" is unquestionably a rock song. "Goon Squad" has an eerie techno sound introduction, that is the only reference to the Berlin influence detectable on the album.
Armed Forces carried a working title of Emotional Fascism that was changed during post production. The original title appears on the sleeve of the first 200,000 copies. These first pressings also contain a three-song EP (extended play) with "Alison," "Watching the Detectives" and "Accidents Will Happen."
"Accidents" features Costello backed by acoustic piano and is probably his worst recorded moment, the applause following the song sounds dubbed.
Perhaps the album photography sums up the situation best. Costello is pictured kicking back on a diving board at what is obviously a very nice house.