Happy 40th Anniversary to Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ Armed Forces, originally released January 5, 1979.
“Oh I just don’t know where to begin…”
The best thing that happened to me in 2018 was that Elvis Costello finally clicked. I’d been dancing around with him since high school, a handful of classic singles and a solid summer in 2007 spent playing Blood & Chocolate on repeat (I was going through a breakup), but 2018 was the midpoint of my ‘30s and I finally got it.
And the album that did it was Armed Forces.
Costello’s third album had the working title Emotional Fascism, which is perhaps the most appropriate title ever given to an album. Even though songs like “Oliver’s Army” and “Goon Squad” both openly and metaphorically attack our propensity for warmongering, at the core the album is more about the violent ways we treat each other under the guise of love, familial, romantic and patriotic.
The album opens with the nasally howl of “Accidents Will Happen,” possibly one of the greatest openers to any album in all of history. Every chord of this song goes into marvelously unexpected places, simultaneously discordant and melodic, smug and regretful. Costello is never just one emotion, but rather a layer cake of glorious contradictions all frosted over with something so delightfully danceable it’s easy to overlook his darkness. Emotional fascism indeed.
Likewise, “Big Boys” plays on the same trends of need and manipulation, but from the woman’s POV. She is the siren, the desirable darkness, and it’s all he can do to be at the top of her list of gentleman callers. He knows he is disposable, but she’s too much to resist. The women in Elvis Costello songs have always held a tremendous amount of power to drive a man insane, and this vixen is no different. And “Party Girl” bridges that gap—“guilty ones are the best.” He has her, she has him and it’s just for a few treasonous moments, but oh, how delicious those moments will be.
Though “Oliver’s Army” may have been the initial standout (despite an intensely problematic utterance in the second verse, which is precisely the point, ugly as it is to modern ears), “Senior Service” is the track I love most. Sharp and caustic, Costello makes a big show of sneering, “I want your neck / I want the seat that you sit / I want your check” in juuuust such a way that it sounds instead like he’s singing “I want your dick / I want the seat that you sit / and I want your chick” which is a far nastier, (but just as appropriate) sentiment. The world was and is and shall ever be cutthroat.
But let’s not discredit the genius of “Oliver’s Army.” Though it references the now-defunct British occupation of, well, everywhere, have things really changed all that much, 40 years later? We’re still sending young men and women off to be cannon fodder under the guise of service and duty. What is one more widow, really, when there are oil fields and other riches to feed into the pockets of the one percent?
The album also came with a three-song promo Live At Hollywood High, which included “Accidents Will Happen,” “Alison” and “Watching The Detectives.” Elvis Costello shows still carry with them the high-energy and anything-can-happen attitude of a punk show, and with all three as staples of his live shows, the inclusion of the set is a good hold-over to get a quick fix when he’s not touring.
Driving to see Elvis Costello in November on the Look Now tour with my friend Michael (who put “Crimes of Paris” on a mix for me when I was in college, thus setting this whole chain of events in motion), he put on Armed Forces to pre-game the show. We were running late and it was dark and we were trying to follow a rambling GPS, so we let it play through three times. No one was about to complain, and a handful of songs into the show—we made it with merch booth time to spare—we were rewarded with “Green Shirt.” Whether about a dictatorship or craving the TV weather girl, it’s always fun to hear.
But better still and not unexpected, he pulled “(What’s So Funny) ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding” out as the final song of his encore. The audience had been on their feet since “Pump It Up,” and were not about to sit down. Michael and I each danced in our own small hemispheres, but we were all part of something larger. The world is so divided right now, between the have and the have-nots, fascists of all stripes and those who seek only to love. But here we all were, strangers bound in sweet harmony, an answer to that long-standing question.
It’s easy to get downhearted. It’s easier still to be bitter and miserable. Being an emotional fascist is tempting because it is a series of shortcuts. So perhaps it is no accident that one of Costello’s sharpest, cruelest albums ends with a call to hold onto the hope that all may be put right again.
Something to take into the New Year with you.