By all accounts, "Armed Forces" should be Elvis Costello’s finest album. The first album set the stage, the second album found the right sound, and the third album is the one that refines and perfects it, right? That’s a not-too-uncommon pattern to find in up-and-coming artists (Blur, Can and Elton John are all textbook examples). Heck, it’s even a concept album! As great as they were, neither "My Aim Is True" nor "This Year’s Model" could make such a claim. Man, the stage is totally set for "Armed Forces" to be a force (get it?) to be reckoned with! There’s no way it won’t be Elvis’ best!
Except there is a way. A few, actually. For all the potential, "Armed Forces" is a disappointingly flawed album. To the biggest problem first…
One school of thought on rock/pop music is that there’s a balance of sorts between music and lyrics, like a thermostat or something of the like. You can have a song with an outstanding melody but trite, trivial lyrics, or you can have a song where the lyrics clearly take center stage and get the bulk of the artist’s attention, thus forcing the music to conform to the words, sacrificing the melodic quality. The ideal setting would clearly be somewhere in the middle, with variation dependent on personal tastes—this model accounts for why the Beatles were and remain so legendary; few other bands have ever mastered the balance of melody and lyrics quite so masterfully. Obviously this model is by no means comprehensive, but it is merely yet another scope through which to view this elusive being known as “music.” And when looking through this scope, it is obvious that between our two aforementioned categories, "Armed Forces" clearly falls into the latter: complex lyrics that force adherence from the music.
But the lyrics are just as witty and biting as ever—if anything more so, seeing as, again, "Armed Forces" is a concept album: more social commentary abound, but this time the target is the military industrial complex. It’s just unfortunate that this enhanced lyricism had to come, to some extent, at the cost of the music; songs such as "Accidents Will Happen" and "Two Little Hitlers" will take their sweet time in convincing that they do, in fact, have something reminiscent of melodies—and it can take just as long to come to the conclusion that they are both quite good songs.
A second (and somewhat supplementary to the first) problem is the instrumentation and production. The arrangements here are bothersome. First and foremost, where’s the guitar? There are perhaps three (at most) tracks on "Armed Forces" where the guitar is audible ("Goon Squad," "Big Boys" and "Moods For Moderns" seem to be the most obvious exceptions); everywhere else is it either buried so deeply in the mix that it might as well not even exist, or acoustic strumming that does nothing but reinforce whatever Steve Nieve’s keyboards are doing. On "Model," Nieve’s keyboards and Elvis’ guitar had a perfect interplay worked out, but here the keyboards are clearly on the frontlines here, and while they worked just fine as embellishment, they’re far too weak and flimsy to be the central figure (like those SNL actors who are great as second bananas but are simply uninteresting or one-note when they finally land their first starring role—David Spade and Will Ferrell come to mind). And, strange as it may sound, it feels almost like a lot of musical moments are built around the drums, of all things. Listen for it and keep track of how many times an interlude or motive places more ingenuity into the drumming than any other instrument.
The songwriting is also a step below that of "This Year’s Model" (and perhaps even that of "My Aim Is True"). Many of the melodies are decidedly on the meandering side ("Big Boys" has a great chorus, but those verses and the bridge don’t really seem to go anywhere. Eh, Elvis said it was his attempt at writing a song on one chord), and others are rewrites ("Chemistry Class" definitely seems to rehash "Accidents Will Happen"—inferiorly so, "Senior Service" borrows from the bounce of "Living In Paradise" and the pissed off rapping of "Pump It Up," and "Party Girl"’s coda is borrowed from… "Carry That Weight?"). Aside from that, many of the songs just wind up being “good, but not great,” showing great potential, but never quite delivering on it, going back and forth between four and five stars (though most ultimately wind up at five). There are only a few songs here that are undisputed five star tracks, namely the excellent, ABBA-influenced, piano laden "Oliver’s Army" and the storming, anthemic Nick Lowe cover "(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding." All of these issues together make for an album that’s really hard to compile.
And yet, in spite of how flawed and uneven it is, "Armed Forces" is… oddly consistent. And very good. And quite the paradox. How can an album so uneven be so consistent? How can an album that takes so long to “stick” be so easy to listen to? How can an album with so many wandering, aimless melodies also be an album with so many hummable melodies?
I guess the obvious answer is that Elvis Costello was still so early into his career that he had the skills and vigor to pull these songs off convincingly enough despite their flaws. It’s still a frustrating album, but at least it all works. Well, most of it works: the aforementioned "Chemistry Class" is probably the weakest number here, and "Goon Squad" is kind of mediocre.
But at least everything else works, more or less. "Green Shirt" borrows its verse melody from the Kinks’ "Powerman," to an extent, but aside from that… artistic reinterpretation, one could say. It’s pure pop excellence. The mechanical, funky groove of "Moods For Moderns" is a lot of fun too, and the twisted carnival waltz of Sunday’s Best is humorous. Part of the problem is that towards the end of the album everything starts to blend together, since there are perhaps a couple too many songs without enough varying characteristics between them. But even if everything is kind of samey, if the material is good patience will sort everything out effectively enough.