Elvis Costello - Armed Forces
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Armed Forces was supposed to make Elvis Costello a superstar. He had expanded his sound on This Years Model but the album didn't produce a hit. As it turned out the album was far from a smash hit, but it did contain Costello's catchiest, poppiest songs. Again, Stevie Nieve is in top-form, and Bruce and Pete Thomas serve as the perfect rhythm section complementing the interplay between Costello's guitar and Nieve's keyboard.
Costello's first two albums created the image of an outraged misogynist, but Armed Forces broadened his misogyny to full-blown misanthropy. The requisite girl-trouble songs are still present ("Accidents Will Happen", "Big Boys" etc...) but Costello focuses on Kinksesque character studies and commentary on British life. "Oliver's Army" is one of the best, and earliest, satires of Thatcher's England, the song still holds up well today because of the hook alone. The phrasing is what sets the album apart from other British new-wave pop records of the time and what makes it a step forward for Costello. The album is filled with little snippets of lyrics that get stuck in my head for days ("She's picking out names/I hope none of them are mine", "She's my soft touch typewriter/And I'm the great dictator" and so on). It's apparent that Costello relishes the delivery of some of his best-written lyrics. The album is less personal than his first two save for "Party Girl", which he wrote for Bebe Buell. He finishes the set with his version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding". Costello adds the proper amount of melodrama to the song, bridging the gap between the Lowe original and the Curtis Stigers take. Though there are a number of references to the military and "armed forces", there is no direct conceptual framework that relates to them- this is just one of the best collection of Costello songs, perhaps even the best introduction to him.
It is clear that Costello was trying to make a pop record akin to those of producer Nick Lowe's and he certainly succeeded. He keeps the songs short and sweet and maintains the lyrical standard set by his first two albums. As on This Years Model, much of this success can be attributed to the Attractions, who never failed to provide the perfect support for Costello. Armed Forces is the odd-duck in Costello's early discography- its not the debut or either of the shocking improvements that frame it, its just another solid Costello effort.
By: Colin Beckett
Published on: 2003-09-01