Listening About Music

Dipping a toe in the podosphere to essay a new media concept (for a very old piece of writing). There will more of this soon — curious what people think.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this review, presented by AudioHopper.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Armed Forces
Trouser Press, April 1979

When Bob Dylan broke up with his wife Sara a few years ago, the world was treated to the introspective and bitter Blood on the Tracks. Although Elvis Costello’s personal life is not quite as public (yet) as the Zim’s, Armed Forces emerges from roughly the same emotional territory, although in Costello’s case, since he was the dumper and not the dumpee, his venomous lyrics are a bit harder to comprehend. Of course, as the Sultan of Spite, Elvis has a reputation to protect, but you have to wonder about the emotional actions of someone who feeds on anger and frustration. Most of us wait for trouble to find us, but not Elvis — he runs right out and creates his own. Interesting endothermic lifestyle.

l used to really worry about each line of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and l suppose l always will. In Elvis’s case, you can sense the specificness of his subject matter, but there aren’t enough clues to jigsaw the puzzle together. I’m not even going to speculate: figure ‘em out for yourself if it matters.

After This Year’s Model set stellar standards for future Elvis product, speculation about this third album grew and grew until its release started to loom as an anti-climax. The double-edged danger of remaining stationary or veering off somewhere awful seemed to be a tricky tightrope to negotiate, but Elvis, in his infinite inscrutability, has, I’m relieved and pleased to report, done it in spades.

Armed Forces exchanges musical violence for variety, subtlety and sophistication in melodies, arrangements and performances. The lyrics suffer from an excessive penchant for cheap puns and spoonerisms, a mechanical reflex that will ensure remarks on what a clever dick Elvis is.

The album begins, as did the shows on Elvis’s last tour, with “Accidents Will Happen,” a smooth ballad that benefits greatly from a full arrangement (as opposed to the almost a cappella live version): a small bit of paranoia to set the LP’s tone. Next, “Senior Service” alternates between a calm tone and an almost hysterical delivery of lyrics like “I want to chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket.” The repetitive organ riff makes an effective backdrop for the vocals. ABBA Costello follows, with a “Waterloo” piano quote opening “Oliver’s Army” on a sprightly pop note that masks the recruiting poster tone of the song. “If you’re out of luck or out of work we could send you to Johannesburg.” “Big Boys” starts off like a Roy Orbison song and ends on an amazing pop refrain that’s as good as any Yardley commercial. The next song, “Green Shirt,” sets a mechanical organ ticking away under synthesized horns as Elvis softly croons, “You can please yourself — but somebody’s gonna get it.”

The side ends with “Party Girl,” a torch tune that follows in the tradition of “Alison” and “Little Triggers.” With grand piano and a steady meter. Elvis delivers all the vocal dynamics he has, starting off softly, with lots of tenderness, and ending up at full tilt. holding his own as the band goes into a slow, grandiose finish. There’s a lyric at the end that illustrates the sometimes forced nature of his wit: “I’m in a grip-like vice.” It’s difficult to be bitter and cute at the same time.

“Goon Squad” is the closest thing here to Last Year’s Model. The bass loops along in a strange semi-melody while the guitars jerk spasmodically and Elvis delivers his vocal best. Organ swirls add to the melodrama, and the track ends too soon, giving way in a neat fade to “Busy Bodies,” a sexual diatribe set to the bass line of “Pretty Woman” benefiting from great Steve Naive keyboard work. “Moods for Moderns,” which sounds a bit like David Bowie’s Low, mixes a cheerful delivery with lyrics that seem very serious.

“You’ve got a chemistry class / I want a piece of your mind” is the chorus of an exercise in silly lyrics called “Chemistry Class.” Whatever Elvis might be trying to say, jokes like “Are you ready for the final solution?” seem more worthy of 10cc than Costello. Could he be getting carried away by his own awesome abilities? The puns in “Two Little Hitlers” are fewer and the music is stronger. The side finishes as strongly as it opens, with a tremendous version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” an idealistic song from the Brinsley Schwarz days. The anomaly of subject suits Elvis as well as if he were Linda Ronstadt singing “Alison,” and the rocking energy of the band makes the track roar along. A great finale. –Ira Robbins

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