Home / Liner Notables: Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces, 2002 Rhino Edition

Liner Notables: Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces, 2002 Rhino Edition

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Note-perfect liner notes: garnering an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits…

More than coincidence? Well, no. But it’s nice to think it’s more than an accident happening when, on my way out the door out of town I grabbed copies of the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Yellow Submarine to play on the same day I started writing this article and was reminded later liner note-wise that Elvis Costello and the Attractions found  “musical navigation” by these foursquarely fab albums, especially in George Harrison’s track “It’s All Too Much.”

Indeed, it’s all too much for me to take… though I did manage to take that fender bender in stride before getting home: Collisions will occur, after all – or something to that effect. Not that there’s anything necessarily sea-is-green cinematic or medley-bent Merseyside about the brilliant pop-rock embrace or the battle attack execution of 1979's Armed Forceswitty wordplay, visceral immediacy, layered songcraft, and all. Costello does, however, feel obliged in his expressive and eloquent 2002 Rhino edition commentary to indulge in protests-too-much pains to explain away the album's original name, Emotional Fascism – baby, bathwater and all:

    Two or three half-formed notions collided uneasily in that title, although I never would have admitted to having anything as self-conscious as a 'theme' running through my songs. Any patterns that have emerged did so as the record was completed or with benefit of hindsight. Personal and global matters are spoken about with the same vocabulary; maybe this was a mistake. Betrayal and murder are not the same thing. The first of them only deadens the soul. Some of the highly charged language may now seem a little naïve; it is full of gimmicks and almost overpowers some songs with paradoxes and subverted cliches piling up into private and secret meanings. I was not quite 24 and thought I knew it all.

Still, when personal and global matters are indeed "spoken about with the same vocabulary," there will be confusion that no amount of revisionist analysis and word re-definition — by the artist himself — can dispel. And so Costello's contention that “Two Little Hitlers” really had nothing to do with 20th century history seems like a serious rug-pulling stunt; somehow, without that assumption that Armed Forces was about personal relationships on a parallel metaphoric course with political history, we've taken a tumble of sorts and are left to scramble to see what Costello had in mind. And that apparently is a song about an egotistical couple left-footing it through “the courtship dance” — until, apparently, “one little Hitler does the other one’s will” more on the home front — domestic home front — than on the world stage. And while, imaginatively and specifically, the bridge references Charlie Chaplin’s speech in The Great Dictator (“He’s an unnatural man”), another left field inspiration comes when we verify that the clicking guitar part intentionally mimics early Talking Heads records!

Meanwhile, the guitar lines that evoke Tom Verlaine with the legendary Television CBGBs its way on Armed Forces’ “oddest and most overwrought” track, “Goon Squad,” which was the first record Elvis had written with a keen awareness of an “audience” in mind. It’s also the powerhouse rocker that coincides with the personal fame or infamy he was then receiving and the disagreeable character he felt he was becoming when he hit the road during his first streaks of independence and youthful indiscretion. Whether true or not, the situations and worst case scenarios as realized — in addition to stirring the unfeeling apologies of “Accidents Will Happen” and the wish fulfillment of “Party Girl” — recall several Costello lyrical snippets, titles, themes, album names, or all of the above:

    I surrendered to temptation, committed selfish acts of betrayal, and destroyed any possibility of trust and reconciliation in my marriage…. Now whispered persuasions, ultimatums, and the closing time seductions passed for an emotional life. I was looking to do everything to discourage admiration and flirting with a sort of controlled fall from grace.

Not that these are all internal forces fighting. Betrayed by its ABBA-esque beginnings, the musically majestic and sublime “Oliver’s Army” is almost cheerful, hook-laden for a mess o’ class and nation and visions of mercenaries and marauding imperial armies. Meanwhile, the “sick little waltz” of “Sunday’s Best” was meant to be sung by a bewildered, xenophobic character to give full tilt to a song “constructed out of shop signs and newspaper slogans”: “Times are tough for English babies / Send the army and the navy / Beat up strangers who talk funny / Take their greasy foreign money…”

Costello credits producer Nick Lowe for retaining the heart and pop soul of Armed Forces. And just look at the quality overflow from that retention: the scathing but admittedly bygone “Tiny Steps” and the powered-up pop of the chugging and charming “Talking in the Dark” were both left out of the final mix of the original release, and Costello shows his mind is not undone as he riddles us why.

As for the sonic leaps and bounds from 1978's This Year’s Model, Costello, after stating that this textured progress seemed to be the case, demurs a bit, saying that “listening now there are very few production devices that sit between the listener and the songs. The confidence and cohesion of The Attractions’ playing is the product of 12 months of intense touring. The sessions were not without dissent and tension, but we probably never had quite this level of consistent musical agreement again.” You're fantastic, you're terrific…

…You're excellence is almost scientific. Not that we're going to get further past the post-1979 mark to find out, even with these particular 2002 liner notes. Who put those fingerprints on your imagination? No, you simply turn the page and come to some more words, some other words: “Oh I just don’t know where to begin…”

Seems like we’ve already made a good start, and covered a lot of ground…

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • JC Mosquito

    ‘Sfunny – I actually thought about that spelling as I was typing that. I decided to leave it in good ol’ Canuckistani in honour of the NHL playoffs, where many products of Canada’s junior hockey program get to compete for Lord Stanley’s mug with some Americans and nowadays a whole schwack of Europeans, in mostly American centres for msotly American dollars.

    Ah – who’m I kidding? I’m just irked that I couldn’t say EC made a Canadian r&b album.

  • I know that EC intentionally went after a Motown and R&B sound for “Get Happy,” but it seems forced to see a promotion of its “American r & b flavour” with a UK spelling. (Yes, I know “flavour” in this case is really Canadian, but still…)

  • JC Mosquito

    Ah, yes… I see Vern Halen’s name amongst the comments – he must’ve forgot to mention that he read your article when he vacated his position here on bc and left it to me. In any case, on reflection, I think it’s the unmistakeable British contexts that made TYM & AF hard for me to identify with, whereas the American r & b flavour of GH! made EC’s English social landscapes easier to understand in context.

  • “Get Happy,” JC? Got Happy almost a year ago in these pages. And as much as “Get Happy” is in my top 5 EC albums, your case of it being “clever” could almost be too much of a good thing, with Costello resorting to clever wordplay for the sake of resorting to clever wordplay:

    “You lack lust, you’re so lackluster…”

    So fond of the fabric
    So fond of fabrication…

    “…she knows the kind of tip that she is gonna get
    A lot of loose exchanges…”

  • JC Mosquito

    I assumme we’re working up to Get Happy! directly.

    I was never a big fan of This Year’s Model or Armed Forces. I allways felt there was something calculated about both of them, like EC was trying too hard to convince everyone he was both clever and angry. I preferred his outtakes from these sessions, maany of which ended up on Taking Liberties – his writing felt more natural to me. And Get Happy for me was exactly his most perfect moment – clever, funny, angry & sensitive all at the same time. Oh – and it rocked, too.

  • Thanks Glen: I’d take that as gospel. There isn’t anything in the way of pure pop that the jesus of cool doesn’t know. GH

  • I met Nick Lowe right around the time him and EC were recording this album, and Lowe told me at the time he was trying to make EC’s “Abba” album. The density of the recording, along with the abundance of pop hooks on Armed Forces almost bares that out. Great read Gordon.


  • Thanks Josh, appreciate it.

  • Fantastic work as always, Gordon.