By 1968 it was clear that pop music had achieved as much as anyone could hope for. The two divergent, dominant styles each had attained a certain pinnacle — no strictly narrative form would ever surpass Blonde on' Blonde, and no pictures by sound could ever be as dear as Sergeant Pepper's.
Elvis Costello's first album, with clear, vexed guitar, clear vocals, and minimal arrangements was a tribute to many sounds of the early sixties (Beach Boys, Crystals etc.) the beat, the percussion, the styles — and under Nick Lowe a tribute to the production of that era. Only the lyrics could not have come from that time.
The last album, This Years Model, saw a tightening up of that retrospective within an even more developed image — Costello as articulate witness to the
The tributes were still there — both "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "The Last Time" converted into songs of the late seventies. Armed Forces now poses the question: where can he move next?
The sound is thoroughly modem — white light, air conditioned, studio music, in the sense that Abbey Road was a pure studio album. And the aroma of several pop classics again abounds — the "Rebel Rebel" coda in "Two Little Hitlers," the French Horns of "Green Shirt," the old (and new) Abba piano sound of "Oliver's Army," the significant "Because" chords in "Party Girl."
But listen to "Big Boys" — "I am starting to function in the usual way," behind this lies a robotic beep —beat made for the grey chilled ether of a Kraftwerk laboratory. "Green Shirt," similarly has behind it the inexorable hum and pulse of the hospital heart — machines.
This germanic, mechanik sound effect is the 70s style of studio expression and extension of the Sergeant Peppers' precedent.
Don't be disillusioned however. The familiar Costello motifs are there — victims, uniforms, mouths, comment on daily English life etc. etc. — and he has in "Party Girl" given us an elusive sign of tenderness. I thought "Alison" was his last passionate effort — from then on he seemed determined to cut, not bleed.
Steve Mason delivers better and better organ sounds. At times you feel you're in a merry-go-round, a laboratory, a church full of harpsichord, an advertising jingle, or even, as with "Goon Squad," out with Avengers or the Homicide
Enough said. The album will have you singing in the showers. Buy.