UC Irvine New University, January 23, 1979

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'Armed Forces': Elvis is king

Elvis Costello / Armed Forces

Brendan Coughlin

My friends and I waited interminable weeks for this album — one of them going so far as to call L.A. Times rock reviewer Robert Hilburn and demand to know when the record would come out. We began telephoning local record stores daily until one afternoon last week the wait was suddenly over. The entire late-afternoon and evening were spent listening to this one record over and over again. There is something distinctly pleasurable about looking forward to an event and not being disappointed by the outcome.

As I sat realizing how obviously excellent the album was, I also remembered I had agreed to review it.

The average track-by-track record review tends to be a bore. Yet, for the first time since high school, I've decided to write one, because Armed Forces is so intricate and explosive that each song requires separate attention. For the sake of novelty, and because I view Armed Forces as a temporary ending for Costello, I'm going to review the album backwards.

"(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" — The last song on Armed Forces serves as a fiery conclusion to the record. It is the first time any major artist has attempted to reply to the destroy-ethic of most punk rock. The song, written by Nick Lowe, sounds similar to Bruce Springsteen, rock's rough-and-tough romantic, even down to the rock 'n' roll wail Costello uses. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this track is that it's the first song on any album Elvis has recorded that he didn't write himself

"Two Little Hitlers" — A pair of lovers reappears periodically through the entire album, and "Two Little Hiders" is their last song. Despite (or because of) their mutual insensitivity, they marry into a miserable coupling that Costello claims will eventually lead to one lover's complete domination of the other. More on this relationship as we move backwards.

"Chemistry Class" — "Sparks are flying from electrical pylons / Snakes and ladders running up and down her nylons." Uh-oh, sounds like drugs to me. Listen to the song's music and see if it doesn't seem as if Elvis has been doing some important, non-musical experimentation.

"Moods for Moderns" — Very, very pop-sounding. On a track like this it's very easy to see the enormous effect Nick Lowe has had on Costello. Armed Forces, which Nick Lowe produced, is much prettier and cleaner than either of Costello's other two albums. Optimistic note: they're playing this song on KLOS.

"Busy Bodies" — As promised, here they are again, that happy-go-lucky pair of insensitives who later get married in "Two Little Hitlers." "Busy Bodies" is not too much more than a vicious indictment of one-night stands: "You want to kiss her / but she's busy with her makeup." Brilliant lyrics, but, as is always the case with Elvis' words, you can only hear them if you want to.

"Goon Squad" — This song, which opens up side two like a kick in the ribs, is the nastiest sounding on the whole album. In it Costello is a juvenile delinquent in a boys' military school writing home to his parents. Once again the lyrics are superb.

"Party Girl" — Moving backward to the last track on side one, "Party Girl" is one of the most gentle and complex songs on Armed Forces. It's about time Costello started paying more attention to his Beatles influences. Following several verses of lyrical ambiguity, he sings, "I know I shouldn't raise my hopes so high"; it's clear that Elvis Costello is singing to the girl he hasn't yet met.

"Green Shirt" — More weird lyrics, more weird keyboards, more hypnotic bass, and maybe more drugs. Who knows? One of the finest songs on the album anyway.

"Big Boys" — I may be mistaken, but this seems to me to be the first song about that aforementioned pair of lovers. Actually, this one is just about the man and how terribly hard he tries to be successful in his romantic pursuit. Together with the other two, this part of the trilogy is concerned with the vacancy of modern plastic love.

"Oliver's Army" — "If you're out of luck or out of work / We can send you to Johannesburg". Yes, this is a song about mercenaries. As Costello sings "it's a professional career" through a contemptuous sneer, his band The Attractions pound and rejoice in the background as if they were off to war. Another one of the best songs on Armed Forces.

"Senior Services" — Only Elvis Costello would do two songs like "Goon Squad" and "Senior Services" on the same album. While the former attacks military schools for the young, the latter takes aim at old folks' homes. Good words, too: "Though it may be secondhand / It's by no means second-rate."

"Accidents Will Happen" — At last we've reached the beginning. "Accidents Will Happen" opens Armed Forces, as well as the live three-song EP that comes with the first pressings of the album.

Briefly, the live EP is an encapsulation of Costello's show last June at Hollywood High School. Although the album version of "Accidents Will Happen" is very strong, it seems a little pale compared to the simple live rendition. I am addressing the EP last in this backward regression because it was released to radio at least a week before the album. Besides "Accidents," the EP includes "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives." Costello's motivation for releasing the EP is obvious: he simply wants people to know how good he is live.

Tickets for his upcoming concert at the Long Beach Arena went on sale Monday morning. I plan to spend Sunday night at the Arena... waiting.


The New University, January 23, 1979

Brendan Coughlin reviews Armed Forces.


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1979-01-23 UC Irvine New University page 13 clipping 01.jpg

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