First off -- yes, I've heard Elvis Costello before -- and yes I've liked a couple of his albums. I've also been surrounded by nutballs that think Elvis Costello is the greatest thing in the universe. Their insistence that I must listen to Armed Forces has kept that album from ever being played because I'm sick of hearing about how great it is.
I was told this was the first real "pop" album, which was a turn-off. I don't listen to Elvis Costello because it's pop music. Okay, that's a lie. Yeah, his first couple of albums are pretty pop friendly, obviously -- but they were raw. Or rawer than Armed Forces. Or rawer than his newer stuff. Or, well, okay, I've got no good excuse.
Armed Forces was the beginning of the end in my head. Melodies? Reverb? What the hell is this crap? You know what it is? It's goddamn pop music -- and that's okay, even if my brain still associates Costello with a completely different movement. Also, look at the cover of Armed Forces above. How cool is that? Painted elephants stampeding over a ghost or something. That's punk rock right there.
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The important thing about Armed Forces isn't so much the pop arrangements or the newly found hooks that dig deep into the skin. It's Costello's bizarre semi-political/somewhat personal paranoid-beyond belief lyrics that shine through here.
It's like a toned down David Byrne singing about a relationship through the eyes of a Czech slave. That's a good thing here, even if that description doesn't make it sound like it. It's a good thing because it show's Costello working for lyrics.
They're not as natural as what rolled off his tongue on the first two albums, but it highlights Costello's humanism and occasional near brilliance. He fails here, several times, but that doesn't make Armed Forces worse for wear, because like it or not, it has some fine pop-arrangements, and it's catchy as hell. The record feels like a turning point, where Costello had suddenly came into his own a bit -- he's not letting his natural talent carry him -- and he's actually trying to progress. This is what makes great musicians great -- it's pushing themselves, not falling into the trap of releasing album after album of the same thing because that's what the labels and fans want of them. For that fact alone, I wish I would have listened to Armed Forces sooner.