As the latest release from Elvis Costello, Armed Forces, makes its swift, almost calculated rise up the album charts, it becomes necessary to define some sort of pattern to the changing scope and craft of the "king's" music.
Costello, a former computer programmer né Declan Patrick McManus, broke into rock and roll in 1977 with his smashing debut My Aim Is True. Bespectacled. pigeon-toed, mocking a depraved Buddy Holly, Elvis spit out the best rock 'n' rockabilly heard in years. The king played up to the classic role of the sneering. threatening star by claiming to feel only the emotions of "revenge and guilt." As he had planned, most critics chose to ignore the sensitivity of "Alison" and the triumph of "Red Shoes," along with the fact that Elvis was much more than surface and pose.
His songs, however, could not be underestimated. As the music world reeled from the impact of My Aim Is True and the entire New Wave splash, Elvis delivered the knockout with This Year's Model. This absolutely incredible LP threw Costello from the pre-British invasion setting of his first album into the ‘60s, as he pounded out basic, vital rock and roll in the tradition of the Beatles and Stones. References abound; "Pump It Up" is "Subterranean Homesick Blues" revisited, "You Belong to Me" plays on the Stones' version of "Last Time." With this, the best album of 1978, Costello established himself as not only a master melodicist but also a consistently superb lyricist. He spits fire with "Chelsea" (from the British LP) and croons soothing cynicism on "Little Triggers." His talents come to fruition on "Lipstick Vogue" and "The Beat," the latter one of the all-time greatest rock songs, as This Years Model is one of the all-time greatest rock albums.
As Nick Love, Elvis’s producer and himself a major artist, said, Costello knows where he's going and how to get there. He latest work, Armed Forces, falls in the home stretch of his journey. Updated from that of his previous forays (and more contrived), the music of Armed Forces is Costello in the ‘70s. "Moods for Moderns" Jumps in demi-disco as "Senior Services" writhes and peaks in convoluted confusion. "Oliver's Army" reflects the distant and jaded despair of this decade. The ostensible theme of the record is war and its insensibility. However, Costello utilizes the theme to delineate a character portrai˚t in modern times more than as a strict anti-war statement. We are to be amused (not disgusted) by the predicament of the narrator of "Goon Squad"; there is no real rage on Armed Forces. Songs such as "Chemistry Class" and "Accidents will Happen" play with apathetic puns, whereas older material (“No Action,” “Hand in Hand”) swam in bilious acerbity, using wordplay to achieve maximum impact. Armed Forces, however, utilizes gloss and ennui to brilliant effect, and resultingly is a ‘70s classic, Predictably, therefore, the public is making it Costello's fastest selling LP.
As My Aim Is True was to the ‘50s, This Year's Model to the ‘60s, and Armed Forces to the ‘70s, so next year's model portends to usher in the ‘80s.* And knowing Elvis, it will stand as the album which defined the decade.
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First published in the WBRU-AM‘s Radio Radio (January 1979)
* Nope. It was back to the ‘60s again.