Oh I just don't know where to begin…
Well, why not here, with "Accidents Will Happen," this album's sublime opening track? As statements of rock 'n' roll intent go, this is one of the best. Elvis' weedy croon beats the Attractions' piano-led wall-of-sound by two beats, hijacking our attention towards his confession of cluelessness. We get the impression we've walked into a film halfway through its showing, and have no chance of picking up enough information to figure out what's going on. For once, the oblique anger of Costello's lyrics works.
I've never understood the tendency of many Elvis Costello fans — particularly the Americans — to talk about the artist formerly known as Declan MacManus in the same tones as, say, his regal semi-namesake. I've always thought his music was alright — polished pop-rock, decent tunes (what's not to like?) — but I fail to see how his work so eclipses that of more obvious cult heroes like The Teardrop Explodes, Nick Lowe and Ian Dury. Certainly, it can't be the lyrics — they're impassioned, for sure, but what the fuck do they actually mean? Occasionally, an Elvis Costello lyric makes sense, falling into one of two categories: he's either angrily, inarticulately romantic ("No Action," "I Want You") or angrily, inarticulately political ("Tramp the Dirt Down," "Oliver's Army"). Anything outside of these two camps is merely angrily inarticulate — or possibly inarticulately angry, I'm starting to confuse myself here. Anyway, sometimes this is great — is it possible not to love the punning cunning of "Man out of Time" and "Beyond Belief" from 1982's wonderful Imperial Bedroom or the likes of this album's "Senior Service" and "Green Shirt"?
Armed Forces, often held up as Costello's masterpiece, is half a good album. Musically, the first side is flawlessly exciting; kicking off with the aforementioned "Accidents will Happen," we get hit by a barrage of tongue-twisting-would-be-greatest hits — "Senior Service" ("if you should drop dead tonight, then they won't have to ask you twice"), "Oliver's Army" ("We could be in Palestine / overrun by the Chinese line / with the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne"), "Big Boys" ("I was down upon one knee / screaming profanity"), "Green Shirt" ("'Cause somewhere in the Quisling clinic / there's a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes") and "Party Girl" ("I'm the guilty party and I want my slice / But I know you've got me and I'm in a grip like vice"). The second side, though, is dull as ditchwater. Songs like "Sunday's Best" and "Goon Squad" simply don't have the tunes to back up their wilfully awkward non-messages. Its only saving grace is, significantly, the famous cover of producer Nick Lowe's "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, which is itself not a patch on Lowe's self-deprecatory original.
I've always wanted to like this record more than I actually do, but its overconfident whining has never really endeared me to it. Why it seduced a generation of American college kids will forever remain a mystery to me — the (far less popular) albums that bracket Armed Forces in Costello's discography are both lyrically superior and more musically interesting. They've also got better covers — as you can see here, so repulsed was I by Armed Forces' "Elephant" sleeve that I reversed the liner notes to a different image. Well, come on — I never said I wasn't a saddo, did I?