In fifteen months, Elvis Costello has released three albums. No small feat when you consider the two years it takes bands like Boston and Foreigner to come up with an album that sounds just like the one before it. In these days of performers who are more concerned with the technology and hype that goes into a record than with the quality and immediacy of the material, Elvis Costello is a rare and refreshing artist.
Armed Forces, Costello's latest album, is different from his last record, This Year's Model, in much the same way that album was different from his debut, My Aim Is True. The raw freshness of the first album and the streamlined punch of the second have given way to a deeper and more conventional sound. There is much more instrumentation on Armed Forces, most notably the use of a concert piano on several of the tracks.
The piercing organ of Steve Naive, the throbbing yet melodic bass of Bruce Thomas, and the energetic drumming of Pete Thomas all stand out from the dense mix of producer Nick Lowe, but it is Costello's voice that jumps out and grabs the listener's attention. The vocals are strong and distinctive, but Costello doesn't seem to have the same menacing edge that he did on the other albums. The slightly commercial production may have robbed Elvis of some of his impact Whatever the reason, he just isn't as threatening on the new album when he cries in "Senior Service," "I want you dead / I want to chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket" as he is on This Year's Model's "Lipstick Vogue" ("You wanna throw me away / Well, I'm not broken").
Lyrically, Costello's finest moments on Armed Forces occur in "Oliver's Army" and "Two Little Hitlers." The former is a stab at the conditions in South Africa ("If you're out of luck or out of work / We can send you to Johannesburg" and "Only takes one itchy trigger / One more little one less white nigger"). "Two Little Hitlers" is the album's most humorous track. Against a subtle reggae guitar lick, Costello spits out one-liners about wanting to join the party but not being invited. When discussing his "new Valentine," he says the situation is "all so calculated / She's got a calculator."
As in his other albums, Costello works his major influences into his records. The classic example of this is "You Belong To Me" on This Year's Model. The track sounds like a brawl between the Rolling Stones ("The Last Time") and the Monkees ("Last Train to Clarksville") with Costello emerging as the winner. On Armed Forces, the organ during the chorus on "Senior Service" is lifted from "96 Tears", a hit single from the 60's that has been covered by several new wave bands. The ending to "Party Girl" is built on the guitar riff the Beatles used to close "You Never Give Me Your Money" on Abbey Road. "Moods for Moderns" could pass for a recent David Bowie tune and the vocal at the end of "Oliver's Army" is strongly reminiscent of the finale of Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run."
Ironically, the most energetic rocker on Armed Forces is not written by Costello but by Nick Lowe. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" is the only song on the new album in which Costello reaches the same level of excitement he reached with classics like "Red Shoes," "The Beat," and "Lip Service." On Lowe's song, Costello cuts loose on guitar like Keith Richards, John Lennon, and Pete Townshend rocked into one. If the Bee Gees hadn't made great rock songs obsolete as singles, "Peace, Love and Understanding" would have been a sure hit.
With the first 200,000 pressings of Armed Forces, Columbia Records is including a bonus extended-play disc containing live versions of "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" from My Aim is True and "Accidents Will Happen" from the new record. The live "Accidents" is drastically different from the studio track, featuring Costello accompanied only by a piano. Having seen Costello perform twice, I can't imagine him performing in a situation of this type. This supports the only conclusion I have been able to draw concerning Mr. Costello: It is impossible to draw any conclusions about him.
The record is plagued by Costello's weakest song to date: "Green Shirt." The song winds up with an ending that sounds like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, a band I never thought would be mentioned in an article on Costello, unless in contrast. For the most part, however, Armed Forces is a strong album. The failures in it are due largely to Costello's refusal to stand pat as an artist. After hearing Armed Forces, I'm sure Elvis' aim is still true.