Two ideas seem to connect these albums: production and fascism, emotional or otherwise. Armed Forces (1979) was Costello's commercial peak, the home of "Accidents Will Happen" and "Oliver's Army," the latter still sounding like a natural anthem for "the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne", despite or because of the Northern Irish unease that inspired it. Costello's sleevenotes reveal the tour infidelities and numb celebrity that fuelled the (self-)disgust in his work at this time, as much as the violence and creeping fascism of late-'70s Britain. He's right, though, to now note his "mistake" in equating the two too heavily (the lyrics mention "lampshades" and "final solutions"), and first attempts at sonic sophistication don't disguise Costello's most simplistic yet superficially enjoyable early album.
The Geoff Emerick-produced Imperial Bedroom (1982) is the one where musical ambition and emotional force combined. It was hailed as his best to date; today, starved of such Sgt Pepper-style richness, its baroque majesty still thrills. "Man Out Of Time" sums up a shabby kind of British political disgrace — it was also, Costello reveals, about his collapsing, deception-riddled marriage. Elegant, expansive, knotted with concealed emotional conflict, exciting, beautiful — more like this, please. Mighty Like A Rose (1991) is Imperial Bedroom's even more ambitious sequel, the quasi-classical arrangements and most of the Attractions giving weight to songs now divided between those addressing disappointed love and those criticising our obsession with celebrity and consumer culture. You might not be able to tell, but this is Costello's angriest record. You also get some fascinating chamber-synth demos and an excellent unreleased track.