There are no simple solutions offered on Elvis Costello's latest album Armed Forces. If there were, the victim of the party, the company, amoral science and domineering relationships would become an oppressor.
Instead, there is enough fresh music to make almost every other album released this year sound vapid by comparison.
From the opening notes of "Accidents Will Happen" on side 1 to the fade of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Elvis, 23, picks apart today's life and musical sterility with the fine madness of a surgeon running through the looking glass.
While the music industry, waiting for the rock savior of the '70s, has been cranking out heavy metal macho posturing, music for your mellow lifestyle and mechanized disco, Costello has been biding his time and sharpening his knife. It now cuts deep and quick.
In a rare interview — Costello has no love for the music industry — before Armed Forces was recorded, he described himself as, "Someone who disrupts the daily drag of life just enough to leave the victim thinking there's maybe more to it all than the mere hum-drum quality of existence."
The world of Armed Forces is anything but hum-drum. It's filled with all the menace of a computerized switch-blade. The Goon Squad will get you if you don't watch out, he warns.
Costello, who broke across from England to critical acclaim in late 1977 with My Aim Is True, sees the world in terms of power. Political parties, businesses, science and lovers rip the individual with their lust for dominance. No stranger to his own emotions, he also points the finger at himself.
The music and lyrics of "Goon Squad," "Big Boys," and "Chemistry Class" swirl around the listener like the shadows from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The ominous "party," which appears throughout the album, distorts the truth with reason and the slavery of being "normal."
Never one to veil a threat — "Out of work or out of luck / We can send you to Johannesburg." — Costello warns that the seductiveness of the manipulators hides a "torture table."
In "Big Boys," which echoes Springsteen's "She's the One," he turns a seemingly innocent date with the local femme fatale — an attempt to be a big boy — into a tale of humiliation.
"...came alive and left for dead / My vision turned to red."
"I was down on one knee / stroking her vanity.... choking my pride."
"Two Little Hitlers" — one title considered for the album was Emotional Fascism — is a tale of the struggle for dominance in a relationship. It also jabs at the world of "dial a date" and the singles bar; a world where people are bought, sold and controlled as merchandise.
"Two little Hitlers will fight it out until one little Hitler does the other one's will ... a simple game of self-respect." "Call selective dating / for some effective mating."
Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus, is supported by the playing — keyboards, bass and drums — of the Attractions and Nick Lowe's production on this, his third and most mature, work.
Lowe highlights the keyboards of Steve Naive and downplays Costello's guitar. In fact, only one song, "Peace, Love and Understanding," has a semblance of lead guitar work. The song, with Elvis and Co. playing with the driving fury of the E Street Band, is the most accessible to those unfamiliar with Costello's music.
It also shows Elvis for what he really is — an idealist.
"...walking through the world in darkness... spirit downhearted ... longing for sweet harmony."
Elvis takes Buddy Holly's glasses, Presley's first name, white socks and the best musical phrases and instrumentation of the '60s; and the sum is more than the whole of the parts.
With Armed Forces getting the airplay it deserves and making it into the top 10 lists, he'll be able to shake off the labels of New Wave or Punk Rock he's been saddled with and get on with the task of taking rock into the '80s. Expect no quarter.