Without a large chunk of hype going in a rock performer's favor, the chances of a platinum album are just about nil.
The best kind of cover, as everybody knows from spy novels, is something akin to a performer's own personality. That's what's getting a little scary about the clamor over Elvis Costello which continues with Armed Forces (CBS JCA 35709), his third album in the last 18 months.
This man has manufactured himself from available parts and denies he even has a past. Whatever he once was is buried in the portrayal of an entity tailor-made for the music press to call the most exciting rock 'n' roll performer of the decade.
The other side of the character would appear to be a man who is small, mean, petty, vindictive, spiteful and perhaps ultimately dishonest. Costello — real name Declan McManus — was was working as a computer operator until a couple of years ago when he started hawking demo tapes of his songs to English record companies.
After landing a contract with Stiff Records, he honed the image to a sharp point. He changed his name to Elvis Costello but denies it was cashing in on the Presley death cult. His contrived costuming includes garbage-can '50s clothes and black horn-rimmed spectacles that recall Buddy Holly. Anyone into such elaborate eccentricity would seemingly be hard put to deny its intentions.
Elvis has said he doesn't want to be a star. But even while he's paying lip service to the anti-star stance he's moved to New York City and taken up with a little moll whose previous rock 'n' roll sugar daddies have included Todd Rundgren and Rod Stewart. He declares he doesn't want to get rich and retire but when he shows tendencies to spend his royalty cash in the same way Mick Jagger does then it's time to start wondering.
Image aside, Costello's songs stand on their own potential — with reservations. Costello has said the only two motivational points for his writing are revenge and guilt. He's supposed to carry a little black book which contains information on all those he feels have wronged him on his rejection-filled road to success. Revenge and guilt tend to be limited topics for musical elaboration after a time.
Armed Forces is mostly another homicidal litany of threats that would appear to have been written in some kind of hurt or anger. That there's an audience who'll accept this general nihilism (and in particular Costello's venomous dislike of women) gives fresh evidence that some people like to be abused. "Party Girl," "Chemistry Class" and "Accidents Will Happen" are all recountings of infidelity and broken romantic relationships. "Green Shirt" and "Goon Squad" contain repeated vague but ominous warnings while "Senior Service" and "Oliver's Army" are indictments of the English way of lift.
There's no denying the power and the authority of the rock, pop and reggae-influenced music tracks. The set is again produced by Nick Lowe who brings. some semblance of warmth to the proceedings from time to time with his deployment of sounds and studio tricks. For the most part this is the sound of the small thin band recording style of the '50s with electric guitar, bass and drums augmented by organ and piano. The drums punch out straight time while the stuttering guitars complement Costello's gruff, jittery and often unmusical vocals.
Costello presents himself as a cruel, bitter, little punk of a man with the charm of a rattlesnake. There's no balance to this personality at all. While you might find his total negativism a theatrical characterization, who's to say this guy hasn't gone over the edge. Add to what you already know about him the fact that he and his own private goon squad have taken to administering Clockwork Orange beatings to journalists and photographers who fall out of favor.
Before his next album, Costello would do well to have a look outside when the sun is shining. It might add a whole dimension to his world.