"Oh, I just don't know where to begin," sings the man in the Hulk-size glasses and average size head at the start of his third long-player.
I know the feeling: Armed Forces comes shrink-wrapped. Get that off and there's one of these silly self-destruct sleeves, covered on the one side by a picture of a herd of rampaging Dumbos and on all the other sides (keep losing count of how many there are; it's that sort of package) in Barney Bubbles re-runs of the Tate Gallery's Pop Art Section's Greatest Hits. An education for some perhaps. I simply find it irritating. "It's a joke", the artist's manager told me last week. "You're supposed to throw it away." I throw nothing away. I will, however, be forced to invest in one of those plastic bags to keep the whole thing in. As for the postcards featuring the individual artists, they'll probably get lost. That's the point of the preamble - you can't throw it away because the inner bag's too flimsy. For all that, I have to confess I prefer the shot of EC pretending to be a Helmut Newton photograph to all the rest of the visual information put together.
That bloody Jackson Pollock's got a lot to answer for, too. As he's been dead a couple of decades that's not possible right now, so let's move onto the records, shall we?
Plural, yes. A free '45 falls on the floor as we fight with the sleeve for the first time. Dusted and turntabled, this turns out to feature three live cuts from the Americas. 'Accidents Will Happen' takes up one third. Costello alone but for a piano on a somewhat Judy Garland harmony slow up of the LP's proper opener. Must like it a lot. This version I could live without myself, showing as it does as many strengths as weaknesses vis a vis the Costello live studio version. Still, it's free and there's a fair stab at 'Alison' in a less barren format plus a really boiling 'Watching The Detectives' too.
First two hearings, nothing grabbed me. Over reaction I'm sure, being as This Year's Model is one of the most consistently played records in the house, even after all these months. I see it's fared rather well in the "Best of..." assessments in the various rags, last week and thus feel obliged to confess that its absence from my personal Top Twenty was due entirely to my being convinced that I'd owned it since November of 1977. Idiot, that's in-breeding for you.
I won't waste either of our times enumerating or naming all the individual saints and deities I lit metaphorical candles to when, after three or four 'duty' plays, I actually started hearing this record. A week later I can find myself semi-consciously singing along to most of the choruses and with that, most of the really offensive bits bother me less and less.
Meaning this record contains a plethora of the worst puns ever committed to vinyl, and in addition sundry other jokes (HA!) of awesome banality. 'Accidents...' for example, finally won me over with its near-glorious chorus. Before that I had more than a dozen hefty winces every time Elvis sang “Your mind is made up/ but your mouth is undone” Awful, yes, but what’s worse is that the same song should also contain a line like “But they keep you hanging on until you’re well hung.” The subsequent ‘Senior Service’ finds Costello waxing “It’s the breath you took too late, it’s the death that’s worse than fate”, whilst something entitled ‘Chemistry Class’ has your man casually inquiring “Are you ready for the final solution?” That’s funny, I said to myself, I don’t remember him being an idiot. I checked the other albums and found he wasn’t. Not my favourite lyricist after myself by a long chalk, but certainly wise on the word front most of the time.
‘Armed Forces’ too, it turned out, has a fair few gems as well as the odd clinker. Bob Dylan did a song called ‘Idiot Wind’ not too long ago that included the justly applauded vision of the titular breeze as blowing “From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol” In ‘Oliver’s Army' there’s a similarly brilliant nutshelling of England. The song’s concerned with the military spirit (the title’s presumably a slightly ho-ho reference to Cromwell’s Model Army) and the verse in question develops thus: ‘We could be in Palestine/ Overrun by the Chinese line” soaring into a brilliant melodic/lyric landscape: ‘With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne”. There’s another spiffing rhyme in “If you’re out of luck or out of work/ we could send you to Johannesburg”, not to mention a pumping tune coasting on Steve Naïve’s (grand?) piano. Hear it if you hear nothing else by these people. ‘Big Boys’ hooks with some ‘zooping’ bass and is, like everything else here – I think it’s probably Costello’s major talent – superbly arranged.
'Green Shirt' is another peak, opening with a beautifully realised word-vignette of a TV announcer and stepping neatly into a tantalisingly husky, if somewhat lyrically oblique, chorus about the title item (which would, no doubt, look real neat with those ‘Red Shoes’ the angels were so covetous of back on ‘My Aim Is True’). All manner of sharp lines with criminal (i.e. as in ‘Watching The Detectives’) connotations in there too. Side one closes with ‘Party Girl’; light but likeable in the ‘Alison’ mould and featuring a ‘quote’ which had me digging out my copy of ‘Abbey Road'. By the way, anybody know who all those faces in the trees are?
The flip starts strongly with ‘Goon Squad', an admirable follow-up to the previous L.P’s chilling (and in my opinion, easily the best ‘political’ song of the last five years) ‘Night Rally’. Fastest song on the album, great heart-flutter bass and snatches of really spooky guitar. And the lyrics border on the brilliant. Work out which side of the border for yourself. ‘Busy Bodies’ quotes that same Beatles LP in the rhythm parts but I don’t suppose that’ll get many folks salivating – “Who were the Beatles?” asked Nicholas Parsons on my Xmas box. Incredibly the moustachioed father of four had only a vague idea. Ah, time and that.
If you’ve never heard of them either, what point my passing on the information that a certain Roy Orbison record about an attractive female is invariably brought to mind by the guitar part? A chewy little stomper, whether one finds allusions in there or not. Tell you what though; the last ‘OOO-EEE’ bits bear a strong resemblance to a song by one of the acts supporting the current Costello/Attractions tour, as on one of his finest moments’ closing seconds.
One thing I've always found distressing about EC though, that's his apparent lack of anything remotely akin to a sense of humour. 'Sunday's Best' is probably the closest he's got to a Hoo-Ha song yet, a lot of this due to the loony-fair organ grinding out the melody. The words are never fickle, frequently grotesquely wry: "Don't look now/Under the bed... an arm...a leg...a severed Head". Elsewhere the song's more specifically aimed, as in the opening: "Times are tough for English babies/ Send the Army and the Navy/ Beat up strangers who talk funny/ Take their greasy foreign money". 'Moods For Moderns' is a far from overly disrespectful strut down Stax street, not too far from Talking Heads in places, taut and swift.
I still can't get excited about 'Chemistry Class', I'm afraid, but the closing 'Two Little Hitlers' is more than an incestuous reply to Nick Lowe's 'Little Hitler'. It has my favourite puns, for starters: "She's my soft touch-type-writer/ And I'm the Great Dictator". The beat owes something to pop reggae '70-'72-era, there's an insidiously nagging guitar pinch and an only slightly irritating sudden fade.
That's about fourteen percent of what's going on here, I'm sure. Costello's too 'big' to need any overt flogging from the miserable likes of me. All the same, it's an almighty relief to be able to report that things are moving along very keenly still. No major innovations perhaps, but a very creditable act of consolidation.
As for the 'jokes'. Well, I have to own up, I preferred him without the sense of humour. But, as I've already intimated, the 'good bits' far make up for the few instances of spottiness. Like Alfie said: "Everything's ugly when you get up close to it."
The backlash starts next year.