Thursday, 17 December 2015

D CDs #475: Function In The Unusual Way

The great irony of Elvis Costello's famous quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture is just how easy it is to write about Costello's own output. It's simply too unlike anything else to make discussion difficult. Even separately, the angular synth pseudo-punk and Costello's ragged eye-rolling croon (obvious mission statement: love like you've never been hurt, dance like no-one's watching, sing like you couldn't give a fuck about how you sound) would be of interest. Combine them and you get something almost otherworldly in its oddness; the cold precision of the instrumentation and the sliding quasi-croak of the vocals simply refusing to cohere. It's as awkward as it is defiantly confident, four young men thoroughly demonstrating the philosophy of "it's hip to be square" seven years before Huey Lewis studied the phenomenon.

It's a neat trick - though one that makes the album feel longer and more repetitive than it actually is - but the real risk Costello ran with it was that he would create music people could appreciate, but not feel. To some extent it feels like this is case on Armed Forces - cold detachment is almost everywhere here, this is punk rock at near absolute-zero - but the emotion is there, bound up in Costello's paradoxically unsentimental lyrics. Written when Costello was twenty-four, the overriding concern here is still of life as a teenage outcast, which is to say life as a teenager, full stop. Much of what is said here is purposely obtuse - though what more perfectly captures communication between teenagers and those who aren't than the feeling that much is being lost in translation?- but it's clear Costello is stitching together the sick feeling of sense of emotional and physical alienation of the hormone-charged bewilderment of teenage life with the profound sense of political alienation that plagues every young person to the left of William Hague. This album may have been written before the Winter of Discontent, but Callahan stood already as a clearly insufficient bulwark against the country's lurch toward avaricious self-interest. Thatcher and Reagan did not rise in a vacuum. The wind was changing, and the smell was getting worse.

Costello's genius is to argue it's all the same thing (check out the album's original title: Emotional Fascism). The personal is political; being ignored by the pretty girls is as frustrating and upsetting as being ignored by the people gathering to ruin the country - and both are linked to the fear of having to grow up and enter the world of work full-time. But whilst Costello is adept at presenting this fusion, he doesn't shy away from pointing out how easily it leads to self-obsession and a horrifying failure to keep things in perspective. It might feel to a young man that being jilted by a pretty girl is as bad as learning the government of the day is going to raise taxes on the poor, but that's an obviously indefensible response; an almost weaponised solipsism.

This is something Armed Forces is very much aware of. "Accidents Will Happen" casts the narrator as an adulterer, no less guilty at causing misery and a sense of betrayal than those he blames for generating those feelings in himself. References to "white niggers" and claims that "you'll never make a lampshade out of me" drive the point home further. Whatever life was like for Costello growing up as a white British teenager attending (so far as I can tell) decent enough Catholic schools, it can't possibly have been bad enough to warrant a Holocaust reference (see also "Chemistry Class", which not only returns to Holocaust imagery, but does so for the sake of a cheap pun). "Oliver's Army"'s most infamous phrase is perhaps more understandable - Costello's parents were also British, but he has Irish ancestry - but the phrase itself is a tone-deaf attempt to link the undoubtedly hideous anti-Irish bigotry in Europe to the grotesque nightmare of slavery and its aftershocks that continue to reverberate to this day. Being a white British teenager is hard. Being Anne Frank or Trayvon Martin means dying before you reach twenty.

In short, then, this is both the Grand Unified Theory of teenage alienation and a caution to not oversell the usefulness of same. All this is then set to exemplary bass from Bruce Thomas and exceptional key-work by Steve Nieve, who between them carry the whole album to its multiple heights (not that Pete Thomas' drumming is anything to disparage, either). Interestingly, the guitar-work of My Aim Is True is almost totally absent here. Costello's playing is functional at best when it can even be detected in the mix, as though his commitment to reliving alienation extends to his own band.

Alienation was eventually something that became inseparable from Costello, of course, as the myriad stinking horrors of the Thatcher government paraded through the country. The universal disconnect of youth became something more focused, as it became clear that the worst suspicions of teenage paranoia were, in fact, coming true. They really were out to get us, for a horrendously wide definition of "us". Knowing what we were doing - and what they were doing - didn't actually make anyone any happier. In that sense, Armed Forces would ultimately prove both a blueprint for Costello's work for the next decade at least, but also stand apart from it.

Just as it stands apart from everything else.

Seven and a half tentacles.

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