Who is Elvis Costello? He is at the crest of the New Wave rockers now sweeping the nation after devastating Britain with a new combination of punk and pop music. Costello is the hottest new act from Britain this year His first two albums My Aim is True and This Year's Model were smash critical successes. Costello's odd appearance and unusual garb (he is short and thin with short, black hair and thick, black glasses; he wears a tie, suit jacket, dungarees and black leather shoes), are his primary visual gimmick. He looks STRANGE, like a comic strip figure. But his music is high energy rock that is never redundant or trite.
Costello's new album Armed Forces is being heavily promoted — more so than either of its predecessors. It is the biggest mover on the charts, skyrocketing from nowhere to number 37 on the hot one hundred. It is also a more commercially-oriented album than the artist's other works.
The album cover is an insane collage of multi-colored paint splats; the album title and Costello's name are camoflaged. The music, however, is the same type of high-Elvis energy found in his previous LP's. The back-up band, the Attractions, are more powerful than in previous collections. The band consists of a keyboard player, a bassist, and a drummer. Elvis' guitar sounds more subdued than ever, but the use of the synthesizer and guitar feedback make the sounds on this album more sophisticated. There are only two disposable tracks "Big Boys" and "Chemistry Class," in which the vocals are out of tune with the instrumentals. They're downright annoying. The use of the strong hook is to the fore, especially on "Senior Service" and "Moods for Moderns" which feature thumping drums and perfectly integrated keyboards, bass and guitar. "Oliver's Army" is a pretty piano-acoustic guitar melody and "Party Girl" is a powerful vocal build-up to a final loud climax and it works, beautifully. Meticulous vocals and synthesizer work are evident in "Green Shirt," "Two Little Hitlers," and "Busy Bodies."
Lyrically, this album is Costello being devastating frank and vague at the same time. Sexual suggestions and political statements abound. Weird lyrics such as "You tease, you flirt, and you shine all the buttons on your green shirt" are here as well. The album closes with producer Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?"
This album is as interesting and powerfully stated as This Year's Model although it reveals the onset of commercialism that is so repulsive to the discerning listener. But the tunes are as catchy and unstructured as ever. All that takes getting used to are Costello's raspy voice and some unusually quick, flat chord shifts. The album is a good buy, especially since the first 200,000 copies have a collector's item, an extended play single of Costello live at Hollywood High. It's a poor recording, but still a collector's item, if you're into such things. Look out America; Elvis Costello might well be the next big act from Britain.