No one has ever quite loved ironic double meanings as much as Elvis Costello. It’s appropriate, therefore, that his music career would start with remarkable brilliance, and that his third album in 2 years, Armed Forces, would open with “Accidents Will Happen”, beginning with the words, “I just don’t know where to begin”. The opener is three minutes of double meaning where Costello sings about a young couple committing a hit-and-run, but the song is an metaphor for a failed relationship.
Costello’s first two albums were based steeply in blues and punk, and it’s on this album that he begins to open up his musical stylings to other genres. The second track on the album, “Senior Service”, is a prime example of one of Costello’s most well known traits: his absolutely bloodthirsty lyricism. The song has a mocking, syncopated, schoolyard sort of melody. After beginning with the chorus, he brings out the venom: “I want your neck/I want the seat that you sit at/I want your cheque/Because they told me I would get on/I wanna chop off your head and watch it roll into the basket”. For two minutes, Costello wishes murder on some poor middle manager. Tom Waits, a friend of Costello, once said, “I’d hate to be bawled out by [Costello]. I’d quit first”. We have to wonder if this poor sap shouldn’t have done the same thing.
The third track is by far my favorite. “Oliver’s Army” is a radical departure for Costello as the song sounds, well, jubilant. The lyrics, however, offer his usual threats, but this time, they’re highly political. Costello harmonized with himself about the army recruiting poor, young men to fight battles with no interest for the common man. The piano bangs throughout the chorus, and Costello gives low warnings through the verses: “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”. The song soars to crescendo with Costello dripping sarcasm, “But there’s no danger, it’s a professional career/Though it could be arranged with just a word in Mr. Churchill’s ear”.
The album continue on its rambling, punk/new wave path, with highlights in the paranoid “Good Squad”; the template for every Gin Blossoms song, ever in “Busy Bodies”‘; and the slow-building, enigmatic “Chemistry Class”, before concluding with two of Costello’s finest songs: “Two Little Hitlers”, and Costello’s arrangement of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understand?”
The music in “Two Little Hitlers” is slightly over the top. The verses recall 1950s pop, while the verses perfectly pile on a schmaltzy organ. The “Hitlers” of the song’s title are an intentionally thin metaphor for a lost couple. Costello makes some of his finest use of rhythm and rhyme scheme in this song: “Dial me a Valentine/She’s a smooth operator/It’s all so calculated/She’s got a calculator/She my soft touch typewriter/And I’m the great dictator”.
One of Costello’s few covers ends the album. His rendition of “Peace, Love and Understanding” is an obvious member of the highest echelon of covers. The original was about, well, hippies. Flower power was, ahem, wilting, and looked silly compared to the raw power of the music that followed, like Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. Costello wasn’t saying his farewells to anything. His rendition is an anthem about world affairs–about war and conflict, as with much of the album–and the expressive nature of Lowe’s lyrics coupled with the impassioned singing of Declan MacManus, give the song a range from the heavily political, to the deeply intimate. A fine close if there ever was one for such a perfect album.