Armed Forces is by no means an accessible album; instead, it fits perfectly into the "grows-on-you" category. Originally entitled Emotional Fascism, there is something very peculiar and powerful at work beneath its surface, something strangely unsettling. This however, should come as no surprise.
Let's face it: Elvis Costello is not a happy, healthy rock star of the Peter Frampton school. He never has been, nor has he pretended to be. His songs are frustrated accounts, ranging from the banality of the everyday to the crises of failed relationships and feelings of personal inadequacy. "Blame it on Cain," an upbeat tune from My Aim is True, Costello's first album, harbors such lines as, "I got to break out this weekend / Before I do somebody in;" yet there is a good deal of humor present, and one senses that the singer's frustration is therapeutically released as he churns through his repertoire of three-minute singles.
On Armed Forces, this frustration (or "anger," as Costello likes to put it) comes out of the closet and reigns supreme. Now the synthesizer and organ dominate the spotlight once occupied by Costello's Byrds-like guitar. The result is much more complex, boiling and bursting with an incredible tension that can't escape. Retained, this tension doubles back upon itself and can totally unnerve the listener. A prime example of this is "Green Shirt," in which the ever-building synthesizer and percussion come all too near Giorgio Moroder's work with Donna Summer for my liking. True to the album's title, the lyrics suggest a female Big Brother of the 1984 variety who has the singer under constant surveillance. But is Costello actually describing a police state, or is he instead defending himself against the grip of a tyrannical lover? Perhaps they're one and the same.
There's a smart young woman on a light blue screen
Who comes into my house every night
She takes all the red, yellow, orange and green
And she turns them into black and white.
"Good Squad" is a fast-paced letter from an "aspiring" young man to his parents. He maintains that he's doing well, yet a horrified urgency underlies his voice as he cries, "But I never thought they'd put me on the / Goon Squad!" His alternatives aren't much better — "I could be a corporal into corporal punishment / Or the general manager of a large establishment." Or, as Costello claims in "Busy Bodies," he could be "very busy getting nowhere," along with the rest of society.
All this pessimism leaves the listener begging for some relief, and Costello comes through. Penned by producer Nick Lowe, the final song, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," really cuts loose. With its resonant guitar and full, innocent vocals, this ranks among Costello's finest rockers. Despite all its corniness, Costello pulls it off.
In his Portland appearance last week, Elvis Costello wore a green tweed suit. His band chewed gum. l loved it — all fifty minutes of it.