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Armed Forces
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Columbia CK35709
Released: January 1979
Chart Peak: #10
Weeks Charted: 25
Certified Gold: 2/23/79

Elvis CostelloConsider "Oliver's Army," the piéce de résistance on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, an album that's killer in several senses of the word. The tune sounds bright and bouncy, with a jangly keyboard riff along the lines of "Here Comes Santa Claus," and it's enough to make you want to rock around the room. But sit down, Fred, and get a load of the lyrics you're dancing to:

There was a Checkpoint Charlie
He didn't crack a smile
But it's no laughing party
When you've been on the murder mile
Only takes one itchy trigger
One more widow, one less white nigger
Oliver's Army is here to stay
Oliver's Army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else than here today.

In fact, this is an angry song about imperialism and the military, reportedly written just after Costello visited Northern Ireland. In spirit and on its very congenial surface, "Oliver's Army" is a hit single. You can hear it one way, or the other way, or both. Elvis Costello doesn't seem to give a damn what you do, and that's no small part of his charm.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Armed Forces
Original album advertising art.
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Costello writes songs that are elusive at times, bursting with bright phrases you can't always catch. (As someone who still things the Rolling Stones are singing "Heartbreaker... with your bowling ball," I'm all in favor of half-audible lyrics that encourage a valuable do-it-yourselfism in the listener.) He sings about violence with a vibrant romanticism, and about love with murder in his heart. He writes short, blunt compositions that don't pretend to be artful, though they are, and don't demand to be taken seriously, even though they're more stunning and substantial than anything rock has produced in a good long while. He doubles back on himself at every turn, and you're forced to take it or leave it.

There's only one way to listen to Elvis Costello's music: his way. The songs are so brief they barrel right by, leaving an impression of jubilant and spiteful energies at war with each other. Every now and then, words like "quisling" or "concertina" leap out of nowhere and add to the confusion. Images are etched hard and fast, then replaced by new ones even stronger. There's an overload of cleverness on the LP -- more smartly turned phrases than twelve songs ordinarily could bear. But the rapid pacing alleviates any hint of self-congratulation.

Costello's songs are dense the way Bob Dylan's used to be, driven by the singer's faith that if this line doesn't get you, the next one will, and compressed so tightly that they lend themselves to endless rediscovery. He has something like the younger Dylan's rashness, too, being hotheaded enough to oversimplify anything for the sake of a good line, and being a good enough writer to get away with it. His puns are so outrageous they're irresistible. In "Senior Service" (the name of an English cigarette): "It's the breath you took too late/It's the death that's worse than fate." In "Oliver's Army": "Have you got yourself an Occupation?" In "Chemistry Class": "Are you ready for the final solution?" The first line on the record, "Oh, I just don't know where to begin."

Beneath all this gamesmanship lurks something like a grand passion, however unexpected it may be from a fellow who favors photographs that make him look like a praying mantis. The EP that accompanies some copies of Armed Forces (Columbia wants you to buy the album in a hurry, so they'll stop including Live at Hollywood High after the first several hundred thousand records) contains a live version of "Alison" that's so steeped in tortured love it makes the concert audience squeal. And the LP's final cut, "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," is delivered with a sincerity bordering on desperation. The wise guy who can work Hitler into a song about competitive friendship ("Two little Hitlers will fight it out until/One little Hitler does the other one's will") is also prey to authentic romantic agonies so exquisitely maddening they go hand in hand with danger.

Listen to "Watching the Detectives," rerecorded in an almost playful version on the EP, with these show-stopping lines: "Nearly took a miracle to get you to stay/It only took my little fingers to blow you away." Or "Party Girl" (as in "You'll never be the guilty party, girl"), with its alternating waves of passionate declaration and angry denial. No Elvis Costello love song is without its ax to grind or its hatchet to bury, but at least the emotion, however strangled, comes through. Costello never sounds exactly willing to give himself over to sentiment, yet he works hard to make himself more than marginally accessible: a gangster with heart. Without that bit of humanizing, he'd be a specialty item. With it, he can be a star.

It hardly hurts that Costello's songs are never less than snappy, even when their drum parts are reminiscent of machine guns, or that Nick Lowe had produced him this time with a large and general audience in mind. Notwithstanding his Buddy Holly glasses and his Buddy Holly white socks, Elvis Costello refers most readily to the Sixties. And Lowe makes the most of this, filling Armed Forces with recycled lounge music ("Moods for Moderns"), Beatles-like codas and the trashiest organ lines this side of "96 Tears." Like the lyrics, these echoes run together in a quick, exciting jumble, so dense that the end of one number, "Busy Bodies," can mix the phrasing of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Nowhere Man" with the guitar lines of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" and the whoo-oos of the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl." Costello draws so heavily on the recent rock past that his reliance upon it amounts to a kind of cheapening, a repudiation. But that's only one more in a long line of quicksilver contradictions.

Right now, Elvis Costello serves as a feisty and furiously talented middleman, halfway between rock's smoothest sellouts and the angriest fringes of its New Wave. He wants to be daring, but he also wants to dance. He'd like to seethe and sell records at the same time. He's mindful of -- indeed, insistent upon -- the form and its limitations: it's only rock & roll, after all. But he takes it to the limit just the same.

- Janet Maslin, Rolling Stone, 3-22-79.

Bonus Reviews!

In case you hadn't noticed, the Elvis Costello backlash is upon us, and it shouldn't come as any particular surprise, the recent brouhaha over his allegedly racist remarks about Ray Charles and James Brown quite aside. But it is an indication of just how fast things happen in pop music that the man who absolutely creamed the competition for Album of the Year in a January Village Voice critics' poll could get punched out by Bonnie Bramlett (whose stock with critics is about as low as Barry Manilow's) in March for being obnoxious, and yet it's Bramlett who comes off looking like the good guy.

But, like I said, no surprise. Costello is both a commercial success and a bona fide star now, and he's done for punk/New Wave what his namesake did for rock-and-roll: made it "respectable." So, given that none of his work up until now has exactly dripped with compassion for human frailty and that he's the B.M.O.C. of the whole new scene, it's only natural that people should be gunning for him both critically and literally (there were 150 anonymous threats of violence the night of his recent appearance at New York's Palladium).

On Armed Forces, Elvis has wisely jettisoned both the amphetamine rockabilly of the first album and the organ mysterioso of the second in favor of something more accessible. The album is actually a little pop tour de force, with the Attractions and producer Nick Lowe providing an irresistible sonic backdrop that generally allows you to overlook the fact that he's playing image games, being deliberately vague about what's bugging him. The giveaway in that regard is the album's final track, an old Lowe tune from his Brinsley days called "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" Its flower-child sentiments, transparently insincere when Lowe wrote the song as a genre exercise/exploitation piece, nonetheless get Elvis and the band excited enough that they turn it into a passionate, raging wall of sound. They sound so much like they mean it that you're not troubled by the double irony, and the song simply overpowers everything else on the album.

There's no question that Costello's next record is going to be crucial. On the basis of the new songs I saw him unveil in live performance recently, it's clear he can crank out brilliant pop forever, but I wonder how long he can pull off the Dylanesque myth-making he obviously aspires to.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 6/79.

In the past year Costello has emerged from cultdom to enter the forefront of the post new wave. This, his third album, is by far his most accessible though he has sacrificed none of his lyrical or musical bite. As on past albums, the backing of the Attractions is sparse but effective. There is more of a pop feel to this work and less of the frantic new wave vocalizing and musicianship of past efforts. A limited edition EP recorded live at Costello's concert date at Los Angeles' Hollywood High School last June is included with this album. A mellow Costello is on view here as he offers a moody, touching version of "Accidents Will Happen" (a faster version appears on the LP), an extremely well done "Alison" and a rousing "Watchin' The Detectives." Best cuts: "Accidents Will Happen" (both versions), "Party Girl," "Senior Service," "Watchin' The Detectives," "Alison," "Two Little Hitlers," "Moods For Moderns."

- Billboard, 1979.

Like his predecessor, Bob Dylan, this ambitious tunesmith offers more as a phrasemaker than as an analyst or a poet, more as a public image than as a thinking, feeling person. He needs words because they add color and detail to his music. I like the more explicitly sociopolitical tenor here. But I don't find as many memorable bits of language as I did on This Year's Model. And though I approve of the more intricate pop constructions of the music, I found TYM's relentless nastiness of instrumental and (especially) vocal attack more compelling. A good record, to be sure, but not a great one. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The author of perfect pop songs -- Costello carefully disguises each snagging barb in his lyrics beneath a seductive alliteration and punning witticisms. But you soon realise that his silver-tongue has a cutting edge! Sort on playing time but not a moment, note or word is wasted as Costello harangues and prods the establishment while hanging it all on irresistibly boppy tunes.

The Nimbus UK pressings are more mellow, though at times differ and lacking the impact of the Japanese pressed Columbia discs. The CD label and track running order on the cover of the UK Demon issue are in conflict, they are correct on the Nimbus disc.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

Originally to be issued under the more descriptive title Emotional Fascism, Armed Forces is generally considered this artist's most successful recorded venture. The arrangements involve more variety and a far greater "pop" sensibility than were evident on earlier recordings, but, remain driving, intense statements. Costello's lyrical preoccupation with sexual politics remains the keystone to the wordplay; however, here he had enlarged his expressionistic canvas to reflect political concerns in a broader sense. As usual, his talents spill out all over the place, but the recording is highlighted by his classic, "Oliver's Army" as well as "Accidents Will Happen" and "Green Shirt." The greater attention paid to production values is evident in the CD sound which has slightly enhanced dynamic and spacial qualities, but tends to excessive brightness.

Remastered in 1989, new running time 36:14, again resulting in sonic improvement, specifically by removing the edginess and notably tightening the bottom; still a bit compressed. A-

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Lavishly produced by Nick Lowe, and masterfully programmed, this is Costello's most political album and his most melodic. His bitterness is somewhat subdued, but his passion informs every song. * * * * *

- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

With spectacular hooks, a delightfully venomous tone and ace songs, Armed Forces brilliantly continues along the same vein as Costello's second album This Year's Model. It contains instant classics such as "Oliver's Army," "Accidents Will Happen" and the Lowe-penned "What's So (Funny 'bout Peace Love and Understanding)." * * * * *

- Marc Fenton, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Recorded in a frantic six weeks at London's Eden Studios -- and originally entitled Emotional Fascism, Armed Forces -- Elvis Costello's third album was a distinct step back from the confrontational music of its predecessor, This Year's Model. Its pop arrangements betrayed the hand of classically trained keyboardist Steve Naive (born Steve Nason) who was exerting an increasing influence on the proceedings from behind His Master's Voice. First single "Oliver's Army" sold 400,000 copies in the UK but could not shift Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" from No. 1: the album performed likewise, reaching No. 2.

The album secreted a three-track live 7" single in an elaborate foldout sleeve. Its tracks included a piano and vocal take on the album's opener, "Accidents Will Happen," that outscored the studio cut in every respect. Another notable highlight was "Green Shirt," "addressed" to BBC TV newsreader Angela Rippon, and allowing Naive full rein to plunder his keyboard armory.

To some, the inclusion of "Sunday's Best," a number written for and rejected by Ian Dury, might have suggested that Costello's songwriting wellspring was drying up. That song was removed on the U.S. album and replaced by a cover of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding."

There was little doubt when "Two Little Hitlers" faded out with the repeated refrain "I will return" that Costello would make good on his promise, though. He had successfully infiltrated the mainstream: by contrast, his next project would be soul based.

- Michael Heatley, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Elvis Costello made one of rock's all-time greatest entrances. The songs of his debut, My Aim Is True (1977), established a curious new persona for rock, that of an "avenging geek" whose vocabulary gives his withering contempt a refined expression. Within months of its release, the album's cover photo and its songs -- spastic ones like "Less than Zero," tender ones like "Alison" -- became part of essential hipster discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. The follow-up, This Year's Model, showed Costello's considerable dexterity as a songwriter, and knack for pumping up innocent hooks into expressions of anger, if not outrage. Armed Forces, which followed less than a year later, lashes Costello's acerbic wit to slightly more elaborate production from pub rock kingpin Nick Lowe, author of the album's enduring anthem "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."

Armed Forces was written when Costello was twenty-four, after he and the Attractions had finished a long tour of the U.S. by van. It is the bridge between Costello the "punk singer-songwriter" and Costello the unabashed romantic of rock's New Wave. In the liner notes of the expanded edition, Costello recalls that while on the road, the band listened to cassettes of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, Cheap Trick and ABBA. And it's possible to hear the influence of those polished productions in Armed Forces's specific details (the whomping piano-studded refrain of "Accidents Will Happen" and the nattily harmonized "Moods for Moderns"). This is the record where Costello realizes that the doors are wide open, and he can make any kind of snarly (or idealistic) noise he wants. So he makes all kinds of noise -- songs that thrum with Springsteen-like idealism ("Peace, Love and Understanding") or express disdain ("Goon Squad") or go to great lengths to draw parallels between cultural and personal upheavals ("Two Little Hitlers"), an idea underscored by Costello's original working title for the album, Emotional Facism.

Since this awakening, of course, Costello has taken full advantage of those open doors, writing ambitious works for string ensemble and collaborating with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach on snappy tradition-minded pop songs. Virtually everything in his discography is smart, and though Costello has since disparaged some of this Armed Forces lyrics -- he writes that "Some of the highly charged language may now seem a little naive" -- few records in rock nail the details, musical and emotional, the way Armed Forces does.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

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