Saturday, August 22, 2009

482. Armed Forces. The second Elvis and the Fourth Costello.



Album: Armed Forces.
Artist: Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
Year: 1978
Genre: Pop/Rock

1. Accidents Will Happen
2. Senior Service
3. Oliver's Army
4. Big Boys
5. Green Shirt
6. Party Girl
7. Goon Squad
8. Busy Bodies
9. Sunday's Best
10. Moods for Moderns
11. Chemistry Class
12. Two Little Hitlers


The only way to describe Armed Forces is to call it quirk-rock. It’s both quirky and rocky and a little bit poppy. Listening to it for the first time I thought it was recorded in the mid to late eighties and was surprised to find it was released at the end of the seventies. It’s oddly timeless, not in the sense that it could fit into any era but more in the fact that it doesn’t really fit anywhere.

The Attractions are truly a backing band, there are no solos, no instrumental breaks, they form a tight rhythm section with some melodic elements. It’s a tactic that only works if the lead singer can carry the album with his vocals and his lyrics. Most people couldn’t pull it off but Costello is one of those guys who is clearly as talented as his die-hard fans seem to think he is. The lyrics of Armed Forces get you involved in ways that not many can pull off. A combination of arresting imagery and clever wordplay made me focus on the words in ways that no other album I’ve heard on this project has so far. And his voice is perfectly suited for what he’s trying to achieve.


You can’t say the songs on Armed Forces are really about anything in the conventional sense. They’re not immediately accessible lyrics as much as they’re songs that you appreciate spending some time with. And it’s worth doing. There’s a strange World War Two theme that wanders through the album: The final track is called Two Little Hitlers, Churchill and Quisling get name checked (the latter with a misspelling) and the strange line “You’ll never make a lampshade out of me” recalls some of worst atrocities of the Holocaust. Odd images to conjure up in a pop record.

I was especially eager to listen to Armed Forces thanks to David Chase, the man who created The Sopranos. In an interview I saw in which he talked about the music he chose for his show he cited three artists whose body of work was so rich he could have relied on them exclusively for his soundtrack choices. Dylan and the Stones were the two I was most familiar with and Costello was the other. If you want a real trip try listening to this album and imagining Sopranos moments that could accompany them: Oliver’s army would work well over an opening montage, Tony could collect his newspaper to Green shirt and if they ever jumped the shark and went full comedy Goon Squad would work really well as intro music when the FBI appear.

Probably the only downside to this release is the appalling cover. What’s up with the elephants? Armed forces is an interesting choice for an album but a cover featuring a painting of rampaging elephants is beyond interesting and moves into strange. Did they commission the painting especially or was it something Costello saw and thought: “That would be perfect for my latest album about green shirts, Goon squads and chemistry classes.” After all nothing says Mood for Moderns like stampeding elephants captured in oils.

With the exception of the second track, which wears thin pretty quickly, this is as album that I can see myself returning to frequently. Many of the other albums that were new to me on the countdown have been deleted from my Mp3 player after I’ve finished writing about them but I’m going to let this one linger around. I’ve got no idea when I’ll have time to listen to it again but I’m glad it’s there if ever that happy time comes.


Highlight: Green shirt. A great song.
Lowlight: Senior Service. Not a great song.

Influenced by: Mods.
Influenced: Nerdy English people who felt empowered to make music.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: “You Haven't Lived Until You Hear This”
-I love that phrase, it’s so understated.

So is the Elvis the King or is Costello a tedious fellow? Let me know below.

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