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 Forces — witty 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!