The 70's are widely regarded as the peak of Elvis Costello's career, both artistically and commercially. 1977's My Aim Is True and 1978's This Year's Model propelled Costello to incredible popularity. 1979 saw the release of his third album, Armed Forces which managed to live up to the standards set by its predecessors.
Often overlooked (but not necessarily underrated) Armed Forces is also Costello's second album with his band, The Attractions, who, previously not mentioned on the cover of This Year's Model, did make it on the cover of Armed Forces, and for good reason. Armed Forces shows an incredibly tight band, and sees Costello moving away from the more punk-ish, energetic sound of his previous work and shaping a more poppy sound, which turned out fantastically.
What's so remarkable about this album is its incredible replay value. What's wrong with a lot of pop put out nowadays is the fact that it's immediately catchy, but once the initial buzz is gone, the songs just gets boring and, worst case scenario, even annoying from being overplayed.
Costello managed to create something that's catchy, yet it also needs time to grow on you. Make no mistake, tracks like "Senior Service" are just so incredibly swinging and catchy that you'll be nodding your head or moving your body at the first listen, but the songs here are just short and dynamic enough (usually around three minutes) to not bore you with an overused chorus, and rather have you coming back for more.
While I would say this would be an excellent place to start if you've never heard Costello's music, this will be a hit or miss for a lot of people, particularly because of Costello's voice, which works both for and against him. While the man has little range with his voice, and often double tracks it, his voice is instantly recognizable (which is both a pro and con), and he puts extra accents on all the right moments perfectly.
Speaking of the songs, I mentioned earlier that The Attractions were named on the cover of the album. Though all these songs were written by Costello, The Attractions play an incredibly large part in what makes and shapes these songs. I would even go as far as to say that instrumentally the songs here are carried by the bass and keyboards, and the interplay between them. There's usually a melodic, punchy bass line going on, with the keyboard putting down chords or additional melodies, with which they're able to create all sorts of variations, from the waltz like "Sunday's Best" to the driving "Goon Squad."
Originally the working title for Armed Forces was Emotional Fascism, and while Costello has always denied the album to have a theme, the album's lyrics take on society as a whole, with Costello showing his criticism in an often ironic way. The quality of the writing is far better than what has become the standard for a lot of modern pop, a notable highlight being "Senior Service" which deals with jealousy and greed, and taking advantage of people, with a verse that goes:
"I want your company car
I want your girlfriend and love
I want your place at the bar
Because there's always another man
To chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket
If you should drop dead tonight then they won't have to ask me twice."
The only weakness in this album lies in the fact that the best tracks are put first. When taken individually the latter tracks are far from bad, but when you listen to the album all the way through, none of them seem to live up to the first three tracks, which is a shame, because while this makes the album start off with a blast, if the track listing would have been a little different, this album would have been worth a 4.5.
At the end of the day however, Armed Forces can easily stand next to Costello's previous albums, and is a definite highlight in his career.