Elvis Costello made one of the most impressive debuts in the rock world just a little more than a year ago with My Aim is True. That album was driven by a force so powerful, it was impossible to ignore. Then, last summer's This Year's Model proved beyond a doubt that Elvis Costello was not last year's write-off. The drive of This Year's Model was tempered somewhat by the sixties' style arrangements and production on some of the songs, but you could tell that there was a real contender on its way. And now it's here.
Armed Forces is unlike anything Costello has done so far. It combines the drive of My Aim is True with the more formal production of This Year's Model. The result is an album that already has the top spot in my 1979 favorites list virtually secured. Any other record will really have to be good to catch this one.
And all of you reading this article who are now thinking "he's just another punk rocker, the punk blows," are wrong. This album is NOT punk. It just barely hits New Wave (there is a distinction between the two New Wave is more pop-oriented), and it sounds like it could be played on top 40. And all of you die-hard Elvis Costello fans reading this article who are now thinking "Sell Out" are wrong. You may be mildly disappointed on the first listening... but not after the second. After the third listening, you will have this album firmly fastened to your turntable for the next several weeks.
What makes Armed Forces the great album it is — simple. Elvis Costello and producer Nick Lowe have combined every element of seventies' music with the idea that kids will still be listening in the 1980s. Costello and his Attractions band can now play anything... just give any one of the songs on Armed Forces a listen. "Accidents Will Happen" evokes; of all people, Phil Spector. "Green Shirt" sounds like something from the British evasion of the late sixties. And try to count the 60-isms on "Olivers Army." But Elvis has sacrificed nothing that originally made him remarkable on this new album, either. "Goon Squad" is positive proof, that his original "revenge and guilt" songwriting motives are still intact. Costello's singing is still the same, too. When he sings (on "Senior Service") "I want 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," it's enough to send the Grey Panthers running back to their rockers.
The songwriting has changed slightly, though. Costello is now trying to expand beyond his old range and into some new ideas. "Chemistry Class" intertwines first love and school years in the way the Beach Boys could combine cars and girls. "You got a chemistry class / I want a piece of your mind / You don't know what you asked for / when you mixed it up with mine..." When he tacks "are you ready for the final solution?" on to the end of the chorus, you begin to feel glad that you aren't the girl's parents. And on the song "Moods for Moderns" he sings about lost love without the old "you're gonna get it" type of lyrics of "Lipstick Vogue" from This Year's Model. Costello is mellowing — but only a little.
The only really bad thing about this album is the cover art, which is really horrible. If you can just get past that, you'll find some excellent music underneath. And early pressings of Armed Forces contain an EP with live versions of "Alison," "Watching the Detectives," and "Accidents Will Happen" — all of which are good. (Just cross your fingers for a playable pressing.) There isn't a single lame song on the entire album, and I'm already waiting for the next one. It looks like 1979 is going to he Elvis Costello's year.