Vinyl Lovers Can Rejoice With Elvis Costello’s Sumptuous ‘Armed Forces’ Reissue

Elvis Costello & the Attractions | The Complete Armed Forces | (UMe)
5 out of 5 stars

CD collectors, you’re out of luck.

Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ 1979 classic (initially titled Emotional Fascism until Costello was convinced to call it something less edgy), gets the expanded treatment, 41 years after shaking up the band’s career. And, like on the 13 track album’s first appearance, it’s on vinyl only (digital downloads are available too).

The outfit’s second album together, (his My Aim Is True debut was backed by the group Clover) came at the end of a remarkably fertile and prolific 3 ½ year stretch. It found them and producer Nick Lowe gelling around a bunch of terrific and diverse songs that range from the edgy waltz time “Sunday’s Best” to the ticking time bomb waiting to explode beat of “Green Shirt,” the opening sardonic salvo of “Accidents Will Happen” and the final fiery attack of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” In between was the powerful political “Oliver’s Army,” surely one of Costello’s most insurgent recordings (also his highest charting UK single) and the brooding ballad “Party Girl” with its “I can’t give you anything but time” lyric. Even minor, deeper items like the pop “Senior Service” and the witty, wordy “Chemistry Class” remain far more than filler. The sound remains lean but far more textured than Costello’s previous releases, something the remastered audio highlights. The disc doesn’t break 40 minutes yet its impact has only grown over time.

A remastered version of the album only covers the first record in this abundant vinyl set. Two others present a pair of live shows from the era; Live at Hollywood High & Elsewhere 1978 expands the original Hollywood High EP included with the original UK pressings (although only three tracks are from Armed Forces), and Live at Pinkpop-Europe ’79 is a previously unreleased 48 minute professionally recorded gig with four more…Forces tunes and selections that would later appear on 1980’s Get Happy. The Attractions had been on the road nearly constantly and their concerts were honed to a  tight, fast and exciting presentation, all attributes of these recordings.

Three 10” EPs feature even more live work with Sketches for Emotional Fascism A.K.A. Armed Forces presenting some finished songs cut from the final rundown such as the rollicking “Clean Money” and “Tiny Steps” (a Costello favorite) plus demos and alternate versions. A trio of additional pieces of plastic are picture sleeve 7” singles with alternate “B” sides. They include Nick Lowe’s “American Squirm” which first featured Elvis’ version of his “…Peace, Love and Understanding.” Add over 200 pages of pictures, Costello’s detailed notes, handwritten lyrics and other ephemera, plus the original imaginative origami styled cover art, for the last word on this iconic release.

Since the majority of the studio music has been available for decades (although there are 23 previously unreleased live recordings) with no physical CD component at this time, the mammoth box is clearly aimed at the Costello obsessive. Not surprisingly, it appears just before the Christmas buying season.

Those who aren’t collectors would do well to pick up a copy of Rhino’s 2002 double disc reissue, still easily available, which includes all of the best material here for a fraction of the price and a shorter version of Costello’s liner notes.

But for vinyl devotees this is a cool, beautifully curated item that is likely the last word on one of the artist’s early career peaks; a classy, costly package guaranteed to provoke “oohs” and “ahhhs” from friends, whether they are Costello fans or not.   

Stream and order here.

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