When Bob Dylan broke up with his wife, Sara, a few years ago, the world was treated to the introspective and bitter Blood on the Tracks. Although Elvis's personal life is not quite as public (yet) as the Zim's, Armed Forces emerges from the roughly the same emotional territory, although in Costello's case, since he was the dumper, not the dumpee, his venomous lyrics are a bit harder to comprehend. Of course, as the Sultan of Spite, Elvis has a reputation to protect, but you have to wonder about the emotional actions of someone who feeds on anger and frustration. Most of us wait for trouble to find us, but not Elvis — he runs right out and creates his own. Interesting endothermic lifestyle.
I don't care what Elvis does to get his emotional ashes hauled, I'm just a rock critic. I listen to records and write about 'em, but sometimes you stop and wonder what's behind a song. I used to really worry about each line of "Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," and I suppose I always will. In Elvis's case, you can sense the specificness of his subject matter, but there aren't enough clues to jigsaw the puzzle together. The fact that the guy's got severe emotional and romantic disabilities is clear, but at whom or about what will probably remain a mystery for as long as he refuses to do interviews (and probably beyond, judging by the kind of response Dave Schulps got when he asked Elvis about his songs in TP 24). I'm not even going to speculate — it's not a good practice when dealing with a schizy character like El. Figure em out for yourself if it matters.
After This Year's Model set stellar standards for future Elvis product, speculation about this third album grew and grew until its release started to loom anticlimactically. The double-edged danger of remaining stationary or veering off somewhere awful (like "Stranger in the House") seemed to be a tricky tightrope to negotiate, but Elvis, in his infinite inscrutability, has, I'm relieved and pleased to report, done in spades. Armed Forces exchanges musical violence for sophistication — in melodies, arrangements, performances — variety and subtlety. The lyrics suffer from an excessive penchant towards cheap puns and pseudo-Spoonerisms, which seem to be thrown in mechanically to insure that critics (?) will remark at what a clever dick Elvis is.
The album begins, as did the shows on Elvis's last tour, with "Accidents Will Happen," a smooth ballad that benefits greatly from a full arrangement (as opposed to the almost accapella live version): a small bit of paranoia to set the LP's tone. Next, "Senior Service" syncopates its way along, alternating between a calm tone and an almost hysterical delivery of lyrics like "I want to chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket." The repetitive organ riff makes an effective backdrop for the vocals. Abba Costello follows, with a "Waterloo" piano nick opening "Oliver's Army" on a sprightly pop note that masks the recruiting poster tone of the song. "If you're out of luck or out of work we could send you to Johannesburg." From sprightly to '60s sombre, "Big Boys" starts like a Roy Orbison song and ends on an amazing pop refrain that's as good as any Yardley commercial. (Can you just imagine Carnaby Costello wearing a paisley shirt, green polka-dot tie, blue granny glasses and a David Hemmings haircut?) The next song, "Green Shirt," is completely weird — a mechanical organ ticking away under horn synthesizers as Elvis croons softly, "You can please yourself but someone's gonna get it."
The side ends with "Party Girl," a torch tune that follows in the tradition of "Alison" and "Little Triggers." With grand piano and a steady meter, Elvis delivers all the vocal dynamics he has — starting off softly, with lots of tenderness, and ending up at full tilt, holding his own as the band goes into a slow, grandiose finish that sounds like some song from Abbey Road, the name of which I can never remember. There's a lyric at the end that illustrates the sometimes forced nature of his wit — "I'm in a grip-like vise" — raising horrible memories of the excesses of other lyrical smart alecks (Sparks, 10cc). It's difficult to be bitter and cute at the same time — sort of like sneezing and coughing simultaneously — and it doesn't wear all that well on Elvis.
"Goon Squad" is the closest thing here to Last Year's Model's venom. The bass loops along in a strange semi-melody while the guitars jerk spasmodically and Elvis delivers his vocal best. There are some amazing organ swirls that add to the melodrama, and the track ends too soon, giving way to "Busy Bodies," Elvis's sexual diatribe set to the bass line of "Pretty Woman." Another great keyboard performance from Steve Naive. The next nod goes to D. Bowie for "Moods for Moderns," which sounds a bit like everything on Low stuck onto a thoroughly Elvis verse. Mixed into the cheerful delivery are lyrics that seem very serious yet steadfastly hide the meaning.
"You've got a chemistry class / I want a piece of your mind" is the chorus of a little exercise in silly lyrics called "Chemistry Class." Whatever Elvis might be trying to say, little jokes like "Are you ready for the final solution?" would seem more worthy of 10cc than Boss Costello. Could he be getting carried away by his own awesome abilities? The next track, "Two Little Hitlers," isn't much better, although the puns are fewer and the music is stronger. The side finishes as strongly as it opens, with a tremendous version of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," an idealistic song from the Brinsley Schwarz days of joyous hippiedom. The anomaly of subject suits Elvis as well as if he were Linda Ronstadt singing "Alison," and the rocking energy of the band makes the track roar along in what once might have been called "power pop" fashion. A great finale, and one that apparently isn't on the English album. (One song was left off the American version — "Sunday's Best.") On a final note, if you're lucky enough to be among the first 200,000 hardy souls to ante up for this record, you should be getting a special three-song ("Alison"/ "Accidents Will Happen"/ "Watching the Detectives") live single included. However, if you're not a collector, don't go looking for it — Elvis live doesn't translate well without the visuals.
Armed Forces may not jump off the turntable with the same supercharged bile of Last Year's Model, but it certainly holds its own. Where it ultimately stacks up will take some time parked in front of speakers to discern, but that's a task I don't mind one bit.