Vinyl box set of Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces" is a 5-star attack

Curated and annotated by Elvis Costello himself, the mammoth "Armed Forces" vinyl box is the definitive look at Costello’s groundbreaking 1979 LP.
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ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS

Armed Forces

UMe (Vinyl Box Set)

5 Stars

Curated and annotated by Elvis Costello, the mammoth Armed Forces vinyl box is the definitive look at Costello’s groundbreaking 1979 LP: it includes the original album (remastered) along with B-sides, demos and a whopping 23 previously unreleased live recordings. All told, the lavishly packaged set includes 9 pieces of vinyl—three full-length LPs, three 10-inch EPs and three 7-inch singles—postcards, a promotional poster, and seven unique and highly entertaining illustrated booklets with lyrics, photos, notes, Costello’s original song sketches for the album (whose working title was Emotional Fascism), and more.

The music is the star of the show, of course, but the booklets are rather stunning in their presentation of the album’s backstory: they are designed as pulp novels and comic books of various sizes with the booklet titles mirroring many of the LP’s song titles (“Goon Squad,” “Busy Bodies,” “Oliver’s Army,” etc.). The seven booklets contain more than 200 total pages of material and feature plenty of Costello’s classic, quick-witted ruminations.

The remastered album proper sounds better than ever and remains fortified by some of Costello’s finest tunes: “Accidents Will Happen,” “Oliver’s Army” (Costello’s highest charting UK single to date at #2), and his enduring, definitive cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?)” Armed Forces found  Lowe adopting a production style that differed from other Costello releases before or since: dense, textured, sometimes ornate and often nearly Spectorian (check “Goon Squad” and “What’s So Funny…”) yet still radio-friendly and commercial. (It was Costello’s only top 10 US album.) Quirky ditties such as the keyboard and drum-focused “Green Shirt” and the strangely hooky “Two Little Hitlers” have also aged well.

The 23 newly released live recordings from 1978 and 1979 showcase Costello and the Attractions at the top of their game, a powerhouse four piece tearing through tracks from Costello’s first three records as well as previews of cuts that would find their way onto 1980’s Get Happy!! The 13-track Live at Pinkpop collection included here finds Costello and company test driving the yet-to-be-released “B-Movie,” “Opportunity” and “High Fidelity” with arrangements substantially different from their Get Happy!! Iterations. (In the notes, Costello references the “new wave arrangements” of the first two numbers and cites the David Bowie influence of the live reading of “High Fidelity.”)

Those particular tunes come off as relatively reserved in comparison to the near-manic, white-hot thrust of most of the live material, with Costello and cohorts Bruce Thomas, Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas all in peak form throughout: in particular, bash-ups of “You Belong to Me,” “This Year’s Girl” and “Pump it Up” (from the Riot at the Regent – Live in Sydney ’78 EP) all smolder with a near-punk intensity and splashes of Nieve’s roller rink organ.

An eight-song EP titled Sketches for Emotional Fascism A.K.A. Armed Forces contains an alternate version of “Big Boys,” a demo of “Green Shirt,” Costello’s version of “My Funny Valentine,” and four tunes that were originally released in the US as part of 1980’s Taking Liberties compilation. (In his notes, Costello describes one of these tunes originally slated for Armed Forces, “Clean Money,” as being influenced by Cheap Trick.)

Available in 180-gram black vinyl and limited edition 180-gram multi-color opaque vinyl editions, Armed Forces is an absolutely beautiful package that celebrates Elvis Costello’s most commercially successful album in style.

- John M. Borack