Home Music Elvis Costello: The Complete Armed Forces

Elvis Costello: The Complete Armed Forces

Released smack in the middle of a five-album gold run that could rival any hot streak in pop history, Elvis Costello’s third LP, Armed Forces, refined the pop hooks and lyrical acidity of This Year’s Model and showed just how quickly the artist had eclipsed even the loosest boundaries of punk. Already tenuously connected to the post-Sex Pistols scene more by general attitude than actual style or ethos, Costello and the Attractions pivoted into the brighter, more dance-oriented realms of new wave, the first of several substantial aesthetic change-ups that would define each Costello album well into the 1980s.

By the time the band went to record, they had been sharpened by endless touring into some of the most sophisticated pop musicians around. Keyboardist Steve Nieve was the standout player on the last album, sounding closer to a lead guitarist than an accompanist as he tore through tracks like “Pump It Up.” Here, he softens his approach somewhat, opting for dynamism over sheer energy. By Nieve’s own admission, he based his splashy part on “Oliver’s Army” on ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” while he adds hissing, harpsichord-like fills to the slower and more insular “Green Shirt.” And when he does let loose, as on “Goon Squad,” his keys are more fluidly integrated than front-and-center. Arguably, the true stars this time out are the brothers-from-other-mothers rhythm section of Bruce and Pete Thomas. Pete’s heavily syncopated drumming throughout is so catchy even Costello sings along to its cadences, matching the rolling hi-hat stutter on “Senior Service.” Bruce’s bass is so warm yet possessed of occasional lurches into chord progressions so knotty that he single-handedly pushes the record in the direction of jazz. A close reading of the Thomases on this album makes the band’s subsequent leap into old-school R&B on Get Happy!!! seem not only unsurprising but inevitable.

Costello’s original title for the album was Emotional Fascism, a term that would have not only been more perfectly suited to its contents but a concise description of his lyrical preoccupations for his work to that point. Armed Forces represents the apex of Costello’s core subject matter: girls, Hitler, and the way that girls who don’t reciprocate your feelings are Hitler. He’s bleakly sarcastic, as on “Chemistry Class,” in which Costello walks a metaphorical line between an actual schoolroom and a discussion of first sparks between a boy and a girl before he suddenly goes for the throat and asks “Are you ready for the final solution?” Even so, Armed Forces marks the moment when Costello began to put his persona of the self-deprecating but slightly unsettling incel under scrutiny, broadening his lyrical focus to place that character into a larger social context of post-empire British loathing.

Costello’s “political” album, Armed Forces paints a portrait of militarism as a desperate bid for self-respect. “Oliver’s Army” lacerates British colonialism and how it perpetuates in places like Northern Ireland, and the line “Have you got yourself an occupation?” drips with double meaning. “Senior Service” is perhaps his angriest angry-young-man tract, castigating the elderly for draining welfare that could be better spent on the young with more life left to live (“I want to chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket” he gleefully spits). But buried within these polemics are more intimate critiques of the presumptuousness of Costello and others like him. “Big Boys” captures the sense of the sexually inexperienced trying so hard that they screw things up, managing to look like a fool even if they get lucky. “Two Little Hitlers” picks an extreme metaphor to capture the internal war of jealousy and nervousness in a young lover shadowboxing at a partner’s previous paramours; “He wants to know the names of all he’s better than,” Costello sings with a hint of caginess that leaves the unspoken half of that equation, not wanting to know anyone he fails to measure up to, hanging visible in the air. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding,” originally a non-album single in the UK but long-since added as the final track to all reissues, obviously clashes with the darker lyrical tone of the album as it was originally sequenced, yet its swelling, anthemic earnestness ultimately casts in further relief the hints that Costello was outgrowing his youthful venom.

The album has been reissued a number of times over the years, and Rhino’s new, vinyl-only box set is but the latest and most considerable of the lot. Spanning 9 discs of various size, the deluxe edition includes, among other things, reproductions of 7” singles, including Nick Lowe’s “American Squirm” and his original take on “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding.” A spare album of demos, b-sides and outtakes contains nothing new for anyone who bought the two-disc CD remasters in the early-2000s, but they still contain a host of tracks that most artists would kill to have gotten on a proper release, most especially the rollicking, rockabilly-on-amphetamine roar of “Wednesday Week” and “Tiny Steps,” one of Costello’s best songs and certainly the most fun tune ever written about a haunted doll. The meat of the set belongs to a number of live records. The Attractions’ focused intensity makes for very little sonic variation between the gigs presented here, but what mainly shines through is their ferocity on stage and how easily their setlists could be changed up from the already-deep backbench of their best songs’ a performance at the 1979 Pinkpop festival even finds them road-testing songs for Get Happy!!!. Remarkably, one of the discs consists of the notorious show at the Regent Theatre in Sydney, where Costello cut the set short and sparked a riot from the furious audience.

Whether Armed Forces is your favorite Elvis Costello album is largely a matter of preference, and by this time he had already proved he was no flash in the pan. Yet the record still feels like a breakthrough, following two out-and-out classics with a set of laser-focused songs that only deepened his double- and triple-entendre lyrics and the simple-yet-excellent skills of the Attractions. Rhino’s latest remaster backs off of the more brickwalled treatment they gave the album in their 2007 string of reissues; the record contained a great deal of studio sophistication, and you can hear the nuances of it better than ever. Though one hopes a more budget-priced issue of just the album is forthcoming, this is a finely crafted release of one of the best albums of all time.

Frustratingly limited to an expensive vinyl set, Rhino’s reissue of Elvis Costello’s third album is nonetheless a superlative package.
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