Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood-Mac-Album-Review

Album: Fleetwood Mac

Artist: Fleetwood Mac

Released: July 11th, 1975

Highlights: Rhiannon, Over My Head, Crystal, Landslide

The tenth effort by Fleetwood Mac is not their first ever record to be self-titled, as the band’s name had already been used as the moniker of their debut. Nevertheless, the re-utilization of the title feels appropriate for two reasons. Firstly and most obviously, because the album, by all means, qualifies as a brand new start, for the arrival of two singer-songwriters – vocalist Stevie Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham – significantly altered the group’s configuration. Secondly, because in spite of that considerable change, “Fleetwood Mac” sounds like a culmination of what the band had been producing ever since the beginning of the decade. Following the departure of founder and initial bandleader Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac had – through a myriad of lineups – slowly abandoned the blues of their first records in favor of a soft and accessible brand of pop rock, and after a series of ups and downs, the 1975 release comes off as the conclusion of that cycle; a point where the quintet, with its two added pieces, put together a work of incredible consistency.

As far as writing goes, “Fleetwood Mac” features nearly no collaborations whatsoever between the three creative minds of the band, newcomers Nicks and Buckingham plus veteran Christine McVie, who was responsible for a big slice of the group’s output after the Peter Green days. The only joint composition, crafted by the last two, is “World Turning”, the moment when the album comes the closest to rocking out. Yet, despite such isolation in creation, it is stunning how pieces that emerge from different sources gel so finely. Part of the credit for that achievement, of course, falls on the shoulders of the production. Done by members of the band themselves and Keith Olsen, who had already worked with Nicks and Buckingham on their debut as a duo, it generates a clean and palatable sound that winds up directing the spotlight towards both the tunes’ melodies, which are uniformly remarkable, and the tasteful instrumentation, which is particularly notable in Christine’s keyboards and Buckingham’s guitar playing, and the two come together to form soft and energetic arrangements that bring the best out of all tracks.

In fact, “Fleetwood Mac” sounds so spotless its cleanliness may leave cold those who like their pop rock to have some roughness to it; and the framework it set up in instrumentation, melodic lines, and production was so successful that its insistent repetition throughout the years by inferior imitators may cause some modern ears to perceive it as tame or safe. However, even if the feeling of over-calculation is valid to a certain point, the album shines. Stevie Nicks, in particular, turns in awe-inspiring gems: hers are “Rhiannon”, whose music is as sexy and dark as the female character it talks about, as well as the introspective pair of “Crystal” and “Landslide”, and the three – though strong enough on their own – are beautifully augmented by the band, with the first gaining some passionate sensual guitar solos by Buckingham, the second shining in the way he and Stevie harmonize while standing on Christine’s keyboards, and the third starring some impeccable acoustic picking. Buckingham, meanwhile, delivers the record’s most unique – for the band’s standards – songs, the unusually energetic “Monday Morning” and the atmospheric closer “I’m So Afraid”; as Christine perfects the line of danceable pop rock she had been exploring for some time in “Over My Head”, “Say You Love Me”, and “Sugar Daddy”.

Although its successor, the rightfully revered “Rumours”, is overall better and qualifies as the perfect record of pop rock in the 70s, “Fleetwood Mac” is no slouch. The former could not have possibly happened without the latter, as much of its strength comes out of the confidence gained from the fact “Fleetwood Mac” showed the added parts not only fused with the existing group quite finely, but also perfectly balanced the new elements they brought to the table with what was already established. It is a work with no weak links, and that is enjoyable in its entirety. Furthermore, it marked the point when the band went from being a group that could have easily been drowned by the sands of time and the excellent musical quality of the period, to a juggernaut that is still being discovered and listened to many decades after its peak period. It is the emergence of a new Fleetwood Mac, and it is thanks to this formation that the name would go down in musical history and be celebrated as a synonym for flawless pop rock.

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Document

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Album: Document

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: September 1st, 1987

Highlights: Welcome to the Occupation, Exhuming McCarthy, It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), The One I Love

Roughly one year separates the recording and release of the fourth album by R.E.M., “Lifes Rich Pageant”, and their fifth effort, “Document”. It was a short time, even for the era’s standards, but it was also apparently a period that lasted long enough to produce considerable changes in the band. The larger focus and clarity given to Stipe’s lyrics, a process that had started during the making of the former record, was certainly amplified in the latter; likewise, while the band had begun to flirt with mainstream radio in 1986 by writing more accessible tunes, which had “Fall on Me” as their best representative, the group – purposely or not – consummated, in 1987, what had only been previously insinuated through not one, but two hit singles, which came in the form of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and “The One I Love”. However, none of those shifts, as big as they may have been, are the main element that distinguishes the two works the most. Because what truly sets “Lifes Rich Pageant” and “Document” apart is how, for some reason, they see the quartet transition from youthful optimism to hopeless pessimism.

As a band that had started their career by channeling, in music, all the Gothic vibes of the deep American South, R.E.M. was no stranger to darkness. Yet, the gloominess of “Document” is different from that of “Murmur”, “Reckoning”, and “Fables of Reconstruction”; the sadness in the tunes of those albums was regional, the one from “Document” is political. “Lifes Rich Pageant” had opened up its musical floodgates by talking about activism, insurgence, and hope; “Document”, in contrast, kicks off with a track that indicates the energy of youth is usually eroded by the routine and rules of the workplace (“Finest Worksong”) and a tune about the United States’ intervention in Central America through the financing of anti-communist dictatorships (“Welcome to the Occupation”). One is an arena rock number, a new style for the band, whose loud drums and fantastic almost drone-like riff replicate the bells, whistles, and rhythms of a factory; the other is a sinister monotonic piece that has some stellar jangly guitar work by Peter Buck. In spite of those distinctions, they are united by the negative, nearly dejected, vibe they emit.

The feeling that the desire to fight has left the band and been replaced by the acceptance of apocalypse permeates the record. Sometimes, it comes in ironically cheery notes, as it does in “Exhuming McCarthy”, which is almost danceable thanks to the Motown quirks that support its sarcastic commentary on nationalism; and in the universally known “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, which takes advantage of the fact the world is going to the gutter to throw a wild party. Mostly, however, the tone is dark. In the excellent “Disturbance at the Heron House”, people seem to gather to try and start some sort of movement, but it does not catch steam; in “The One I Love”, Stipe sneaks indifference in between the lines of what appears to be a love song and, in the context of the album, signals even relationships hold no value in the despicable times in which he lives; in “King of Birds”, where Peter Buck picks up a sitar and plays it tastefully while accompanied by Bill Berry’s marching drums and Stipe’s gorgeous lyrics on wisdom and humility, there is the urge to pass on motivation and lessons to new generations, but the tune is too introspective to generate hope or indicate action will be taken; and closer “Oddfellows Local 151”, one of the band’s bleakest and heaviest tracks, paints a rather desolate picture.

Although certainly worthy of praise due to how it balances its peculiar tune with two successful shots at the mainstream, wrapping it all in a package that is cohesive and of notable quality, “Document”, just like it had occurred in “Lifes Rich Pageant”, has moments that reveal the frantic schedule of touring and releasing an album every year that R.E.M. had been facing since 1982 was taking its toll in terms of musical production. The tracks “Strange”, a cover of the band Wire, and “Fireplace”, which does hold a pretty nice saxophone line, suffer – respectively – from Stipe’s strident voice and a general dullness in melody; additionally, Lightnin’ Hopkins is so plain that it sounds unfinished, as its two intended hooks – Buck’s guitar riff and Mills’ unusually lackluster vocals – fall awkwardly flat. Even if those three songs seem to show the group was starting to run short on material due to the brief intervals between the publishing of their first works, “Document” remains quite remarkable. The eight peaks it presents showcase a band that was not only expanding their sound, but also succeeding in shifting the tone and theme of their work within a short period of time. And the fact that, amidst all darkness and despair, it carried two tunes that knew how to be artistic and cohesive whereas also being catchy enough to be hits proved R.E.M. already knew how to be popular without letting go off their freedom and integrity, a torch they would hold proudly until the end of their run.

Os Mutantes

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Album: Os Mutantes

Artist: Os Mutantes

Released: June 1st, 1968

Highlights: Panis et Circenses, A Minha Menina, Baby, Bat Macumba

In 1922, a one-week event in São Paulo’s municipal theater gathered Brazilian artists from different parts of the country with the goal of launching the nation’s culture towards Modernism. Out of the many artistic lines of thought exposed during those seven days, one in particular is highly important for the understanding of “Os Mutantes”, a psychedelic rock album that would emerge from the same country and city more than four decades later. And that is because poet Mario de Andrade, seeking to establish a local artistic expression that would simultaneously be distinctively Brazilian but also ready for global exportation, inadvertently set in stone the foundation behind the record when he presented what he would dub the Anthropophagic Movement. According to Andrade, Brazilian artists were not meant to ignore the cultural production of prominent regions such as Europe and the United States; they were actually meant to eat and digest those influences throughly. However, as they did so, in order to preserve the Brazilian character of their own output, they also had to swallow the culture of the groups that had been an integral part of Brazil’s formation; namely, the Portuguese, the indigenous peoples that had ruled the land before the arrival of European colonizers, and the Africans that had mostly stepped into the country as slaves. And it was through the ingestion of these external and internal currents that local artists would be able to spit out works of worldwide relevance with a unique Brazilian twist.

“Os Mutantes” fits into that context because, either purposely or unconsciously, Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sérgio Dias followed that exact recipe in the building of their very quirky psychedelic trip. From outside Brazil, they feed on the dark wackiness of Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and eat the colorful instrumentation, pop sensibilities, and acid-fueled circus vibe of The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and, especially, The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, all released in the previous year. Meanwhile, from within their South American borders, their nourishment comes from the musicians involved in the Tropicália movement, such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Jorge Ben Jor. It is a cultural tug of war, one that sometimes gets more strongly pulled towards one of its extremes, as it happens in the vaudevillian “Senhor F” and in the excellent foreign pop covers of “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour” and “Once Was a Time I Thought”. In the end, though, it remains thoroughly balanced through most of the album’s running time, creating a brand of psychedelic rock that albeit being one year late to the drug-influenced party of 1967 still arrives timely enough to have an impact. More importantly, even if by its release psychedelic rock had already been tackled quite extensively by both its creators and those who jumped aboard the train after it left the station, the special mixture behind “Os Mutantes” guarantees the originality of its content.

What is found here cannot be had anywhere else, because it could only have been produced by a Brazilian band mutually aware of the relevant musical exploits happening in its country and of the British and American fads that dominated rock music at the time. “Os Mutantes” is, therefore, either Tropicália on acid or tropicalist psychedelic rock and most of its eleven tracks are bent on joining these two sides. In “A Minha Menina”, written by Jorge Ben Jor, the trio takes a samba tune, keeps its signature percussive elements, but drowns everything in studio trickery and a wicked fuzzy guitar. In “Adeus Maria Fulô”, they dabble into baião (a popular rhythm from Brazil’s northeast), and although the instrumentation of the tune is sober and closer to what is traditional, the production makes it sound loose and trippy. In “Bat Macumba”, one of the two songs in the record composed by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, where a single verse is humorously repeated over and over again first by removing a syllable at each passage and then by adding them back one by one until the verse is complete once more, they dive into the rhythms of African-Brazilian religions with an added Beatlesque beat. And in both “Panis et Circenses” and “Baby” the band does Tropicália drenched in odd effects and unpredictable arrangements.

“Os Mutantes” is not, however, an uniform bliss of accessible psychedelia, pop, and Tropicália, for it does contain a trio of moments when the band veers into wilder territory. Not coincidentally, those tend to come up when the band itself is left on their own to come up with material, and the irregular quality of these tracks reveals not only an inclination by Arnaldo and Sérgio to be highly experimental (a nature that would emerge further down the line) but also that the trio had yet to mature into solid songwriters. “O Relógio”, despite its interesting dynamics, lacks melodically; “Trem Fantasma”, where the group cleverly harmonizes in a way that imitates the whistle of a train, has nice instrumentation but an absence of notable hooks; and closer “Ave Gengis Khan” feels a whole lot like filler. These tracks stop “Os Mutantes” from being the masterpiece its stylistic originality signals it could have turned out to be. Still, these songs are not entirely problematic, as they do carry some redeeming features. Furthermore, they also add to the general strangeness of the record. And like so, they indicate that the cultural anthropophagy idealized by Mario de Andrade in 1922 and executed by Os Mutantes in the gestation period of the album generated a very Brazilian acid trip with exquisite moments of brilliancy and a couple of occasions when the chemicals get in the way.

Surfer Rosa

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Album: Surfer Rosa

Artist: Pixies

Released: March 21st, 1988

Highlights: Bone Machine, Break My Body, Where Is My Mind?, River Euphrates

Wild, violent, aggressive, raw, energetic, and in-your-face. To some extent, those adjectives have been used throughout music history to describe an enormous amount of tracks and albums: from those produced by all bands associated with the punk rock movement to the ones birthed by the endless groups that fall into the equally vast sub-genres of metal. It is arguable, however, that even if those records do have a claim to sporting such qualifications, the Pixies’ debut, “Surfer Rosa”, makes – during slightly over thirty minutes – the point that, more than being worthy of receiving those labels, it absolutely owns them. “Surfer Rosa” is so bare-bones in sound and instrumentation it makes the no-frills rock that blasts from garages around the world look like the work of a progressive band; it is so uncompromising that it makes the song structures from a Ramones LP seem like they are part of a pompous rock opera; and it is written and performed with such an absurd bend towards primal instincts it makes the raw power of The Stooges appear too calculated in comparison. “Surfer Rosa” screams, attacks, pounds, and finds a way to alternate moments of jarring psychopathy with intermissions of tongue-in-cheek fun.

Throughout the album, Black Francis – the group’s singer and songwriter – seems to be constantly challenging the notion of what can pass for a song. Out of the thirteen tracks, five do not even reach the two-minute mark, and just three of them safely climb above three minutes. But it is not just a matter of brevity; it is often a question of structure. On “Something Against You”, with a distorted voice that seems to indicate some murderous intent, he repeats the title madly while the band blasts a spiral of noise; “Tony’s Theme”, about a child who imagines himself as a superhero who chases villains on his bike, is appropriately a whole lot like a personal anthem a toddler would come up with in a few minutes; “Oh My Golly” is so simple it comes off like the type of throwaway tune that would be used by the band to warm up in the studio or on stage before actually performing, only it has somehow made it into the album; and “I’m Amazed”, which opens with hilarious playful studio banter between Francis and bassist Kim Deal, has more dialogue than lyrics. As such, “Surfer Rosa” could have easily been the target of accusations of laziness or lack of material, especially given it was the band’s full-length debut. Yet, through some sort of trickery, the Pixies make it work.

As one of the first production jobs of the now legendary Steve Albini, and the reason he would go on to be employed by various other artists, “Surfer Rosa” has a raw purity that explains his fame as a producer who is really more of a recorder. With compulsively precise microphone placement and by having the group perform live in the studio as much as possible, Albini extracts the immaculate essence of a four-piece rock band. David Lovering’s drums sound magnificent, and it is arguable the instrument has never been recorded so flawlessly; and given that, alongside Kim Deal’s bass, they are the leading thread of most of the songs, their prominent position in the mix does wonders to the tracks’ inherent violence. Meanwhile, the guitars of Santiago and Francis are strident and vicious. On “River Euphrates”, they sound like they could cut through steel; on the quiet and monotonic “Cactus”, they are subdued and threatening; and on the opener, “Bone Machine”, whenever they explode just as Francis lets out a glorious scream, they seem ready to kill. Consequently, the music of “Surfer Rosa” oozes brutality, sometimes precariously chained and sometimes dangerously loose, but it somehow makes its savagery appealing.

Francis sings about a man who finds pleasure and jealousy in watching his girlfriend be unfaithful to him and who appears to be ready to end it all quite violently (“Bone Machine”), a family whose incestuous behavior has led to deformed offspring (“Broken Face”), a well-endowed black man (“Gigantic”), and an inmate who want his lover to send him a bloodied and sweaty piece of underwear to prove she is still alive (“Cactus”). Yet, despite the potentially appalling subjects, the Pixies never lose sight of the poppy hooks, and that is ultimately what makes “Surfer Rosa”, for it exists on such thin line between the disturbing and the sugary that it is shocking it is able to stand and support itself on it. All of its tunes are as catchy as they are violent, and for every sick scream, awkwardly sung verse, and transgressive sentence, there is a weird melodic line from which it is impossible to escape. That odd balance is prevalent on “Surfer Rosa”, be it in how Kim Deal’s sweet and almost naive backing vocals act as a soothing counterpoint to Francis’s insanity or in how it alternates sheer abrasiveness with a couple of tracks of pure pop rock bliss (“Gigantic” and “Where Is My Mind?”). “Surfer Rosa” is such an uncanny working mixture of pieces that are thorny and accessible that its existence is sort of a musical miracle, and just like it successfully claims as its property the adjectives wild, violent, aggressive, raw, energetic, and in-your-face, it positions itself as the progenitor of all alternative rock that is artistically independent, challenging, and immensely enjoyable.

Boys Don’t Cry

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Album: Boys Don’t Cry

Artist: The Cure

Released: February 5th, 1980

Highlights: Boys Don’t Cry, Jumping Someone Else’s Train, Fire in Cairo, Three Imaginary Boys

Through the long and excellent arch of their career, The Cure became kings of all existing musical tones of sadness, melancholy, and depression. They did it through the dark jangle of “Seventeen Seconds”, the lethargic hopelessness of “Faith”, the violent sorrow of “Pornography”, the accessible pop rock of “The Head on the Door”, the kaleidoscopic variety of “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me”, and layered beauty of “Disintegration”. However, before throwing themselves into the dark pit they have inhabited until nowadays, only occasionally coming out of it to deliver joyful sugar-coated hits, The Cure was a lot like The Beatles. No, it is not that Robert Smith and his crew were employing immaculate harmonies to sing about girls, dates, and teenage love; The Cure has never had the vocal assets to pull that off, and Smith’s emotional crises tend to swing to far more disturbing themes. What the band was doing, instead, was delivering a barrage of short songs with immediate choruses, catchy hooks, and straightforward structures.

The Cure stood within that musical spectrum for long enough to produce an album’s worth of material and a handful of great singles, and these tunes were compiled under the title “Boys Don’t Cry” – which was the name of the best of their 7-inch releases – for what would be their American full-length debut. “Boys Don’t Cry” is far stronger than its British counterpart, called “Three Imaginary Boys”, because it drops some of its least interesting tracks and replaces them with a trio of strong singles: “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Killing an Arab”, and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”, therefore capturing the very best of what Robert Smith, Michael Dempsey, and Lol Tolhurst wrote and performed during those early years.

Despite the comparisons to The Beatles that “Boys Don’t Cry” tends to evoke due to its delightful simplicity, the album is firmly grounded in the ethos of the genre that dominated its context: post-punk. Consequently, “Boys Don’t Cry” does have a rough do-it-yourself aura, some tinges of restrained anger, and a careless demeanor (which is constantly at odds with a relatively foggy production). Contrarily to what most of their post-punk counterparts were doing, though, The Cure does not abandon the rejected musical and sociological idealism of punk to explore the shades that exist outside of rock music; what they do, instead, is ride loud drums and a melodic bass that stand in the forefront of most tracks, as well as a distinctive guitar tone and strum that fill the empty corners of the tunes, towards fantastic melodies that are delivered by Smith’s usual and lovable awkwardness.

Save for the odd experimentation of “Subway Song”, “Boys Don’t Cry” is an album where all tracks are as sticky (in a good way) as bubblegum; remembering the core hook or the chorus of every song long after one has listened to the album is not hard. Some of its moodier and more monotonic tunes – namely, the very good duo of “Another Day” and “Three Imaginary Boys” – strongly point in the direction of the dark alleys and forests into which the band would soon walk; still, for the most part “Boys Don’t Cry” is made up of brief energetic explosions that are as quick to capture listeners as they are to reach the end of their run, as just a couple of tracks here last for over three minutes. “Boys Don’t Cry” is, as such, The Cure’s most accessible work, even if – in hindsight – it is not representative of the band, making it work as an interesting curiosity for fans that have stuck with Robert Smith for the long run, and as an approachable and well-done look into the rock of the early 80s for everyone else.

Hunky Dory

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Album: Hunky Dory

Artist: David Bowie

Released: December 17th, 1971

Highlights: Changes, Oh You Pretty Things, Life on Mars?, Queen Bitch

As a music star that became known, among many reasons, for often metamorphosing into new characters or abruptly embracing unexpected styles, it is not surprising to say that, with “Hunky Dory”, David Bowie turned a corner. Doing so was his trade, and before his fourth record the artist had already undergone a couple of drastic changes, as the whimsical baroque pop weirdo of “David Bowie” had become the folk singer of “Space Oddity”, who – in turn – eventually emerged as an extravagant hard rocker of Black Sabbath inspirations in “The Man Who Sold the World”. The shift presented by “Hunky Dory”, however, feels bigger and more significant than the mutations that preceded it, for while the works that were crafted before it came off as the products of a songwriter tapping into multiple genres as some sort of musical soul-searching, “Hunky Dory” is the eureka moment; the epiphany of a man who suddenly found what he had been looking for whilst fumbling in the darkness.

Therefore, “Hunky Dory” is pivotal. It is not that Bowie had yet to birth any classic tunes; after all, songs like “Space Oddity”, “The Width of a Circle”, and “The Man Who Sold the World” had already been launched into existence. It is just that “Hunky Dory” is more refreshing, original, and consistent than anything else he had done by 1971. The unabashed quirks and soothing orchestration of his debut, the acoustic flavors of his sophomore outing, and the flamboyant guitars of his third effort are still vividly present, sometimes combined in the same track but more frequently serving as the backbones of distinct tunes. The difference is those pieces sound stronger here, not only because they give birth to tunes that are mostly excellent, but also due to how Bowie has found a realm to call his own: an explosion of warm and welcoming pop sensibilities that is unafraid to drag its listeners towards weird turns of psychedelia and experimentation.

That journey starts with four immaculate and immediately classic piano-led tunes: “Changes”, with its introspective mediation accompanied by horns and strings; “Oh You Pretty Things”, which quickly goes from quiet ballad to glam rock swagger when it reaches its chorus; “Eight Line Poem”, where a tasteful slide guitar enhances the beauty of a testament to musical simplicity; and “Life On Mars?”, an orchestrated epic that seamlessly integrates a simple trip to the cinema and deep existential questions. Following that sequence, and having soothed his listeners into the experience, Bowie dares to open the doors to an absolute madhouse of styles and experiments: he adds British traits to a Neil Young inspired folk country sing-along (“Kooks”); goes operatic in a beautiful multi-phased ballad that rises from an acoustic strum to an orchestrated piece filled with harmonies and layers of sound (“Quicksand”); and pays homage to some of his idols either by covering their songs (“Fill Your Heart”, originally performed by Biff Rose), name-dropping them (“Andy Warhol” and “Song for Bob Dylan”), or tackling the same themes in which they thrived (“Queen Bitch”, a hard-rocking tune that nods to The Velvet Underground by being centered around a transvestite).

Bowie wraps the trip up with “The Bewlay Brothers”, a psychedelic ballad whose unpredictability and stream-of-consciousness lyrics mirror the schizophrenia that affected his brother. Although the more experimental side of “Hunky Dory” does not pack the undeniable greatness of its opening tracks, as it alternates great moments with a few songs that are slightly lacking, it reveals Bowie as an artist that would – through the length of his career – challenge his listeners in surprising ways, throwing odd curveballs at them amidst all the remarkable hits. Therefore, even though Bowie’s artistic character was nearly unidentifiable due to its mercurial nature, “Hunky Dory” established the general framework he would follow: that of a man who knew how to explore music in both its most accessible and daring facets.

Armed Forces

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Album: Armed Forces

Artist: Elvis Costello

Released: January 5th, 1979

Highlights: Accidents Will Happen, Oliver’s Army, Busy Bodies, Two Little Hitlers

How much sneer and acid rhetoric can the length of a pop record contain? As the trilogy that opens Elvis Costello’s career reveals, that amount is off the charts. In a time when punks decorated lyrics against the system and social norms with garage rock ethos, Costello channeled that same level of anger towards lovers and relationships, adorning his corrosive cannon with new wave elements and rock and roll straightforwardness. The confrontational attitude was the same, but it was expressed in a quite different manner. “Armed Forces” was the third and final leg of that trio of records, and it was also the one in which the pop leanings of new wave were more pronounced. Keyboards and sleek production had already begun to leak into Costello’s sound in the spectacular “This Year’s Model”, but in “Armed Forces” the levee breaks and the tracks are assaulted by smooth organs and synths, making it far removed from the sloppy roughness of the artist’s debut, “My Aim Is True”.

One of the reasons behind that evolution is quite obvious: the further integration of The Attractions, Costello’s backing band, into his music. First appearing in “This Year’s Model”, by the time of “Armed Forces” the group composed of Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, and Pete Thomas had earned the right to often take over the songs. And, like good punks, they do so. Differently from most ensembles of the era, though, Elvis and The Attractions do not succumb to the keyboards, they are propelled by them, as the instrument is turned into a searing tool that augments their indignation. Ironically, however, even though “Armed Forces” is by far the most pop-sounding record of that initial career arch, it is also the one with the smallest quantity of immediate hooks. It is not that it is lacking in that department, as Elvis – in his paranoia and fast enunciation – is still producing plenty of remarkable moments; it is just that the material here, as a whole, pales in comparison to what came right before it.

In terms of elucidating his rage, though, Costello has not lost a step. His lyrics aim for his usual targets, and he hits them with the accuracy of a man who knows how to use words as weapons. When it comes to relationships, Elvis dissects the banality of infidelity (“Accidents Will Happen”), the harms done by the media via their scrutinizing and misinterpretation of celebrity encounters (“Party Girl”), the struggle for the upper hand (“Two Little Hitlers”), the inevitable failings that happen despite all good intentions involved (“Big Boys”), and pulls off a grand metaphor between chemical phenomena and attraction (“Chemistry Class”). Meanwhile, for politicians and society, he rises against military interventions (“Oliver’s Army”), mocks the emptiness of a career in the army (“Goon Squad” and “Sunday’s Best”), reveals the sociopaths created by the wish to climb the corporate ladder (“Senior Service”), points the finger at brainwashing mechanisms (“Moods for Moderns” and “Green Shirt”), and laughs at the rat race (“Busy Bodies”).

Whether it is in ideas, excellent one-liners, tasteful playing, and catchy songwriting, “Armed Forces” packs content whose size and weight is equivalent to the parade of elephants that seems about to explode out of its cover. With the 80s fast approaching, and the need to look for new inspiration for his compositions, it may be a record that ends up – at least sonically – removing a bit of the edge off Costello’s music. However, as an artist that – from the get go – presented himself as a man who could seamlessly introduce pop stylings into the rebellious aura of punk and rock and roll, the step taken in “Armed Forces” was nothing but natural. While, here, he may occasionally falter in a couple of tracks, he is still able to uncover a stunning number of shining gems.