By 1979, Elvis Costello had established himself as an acerbic songwriter with a penchant for pungent turns of phrase, a sort of New Wave Bob Dylan. Critics adored his wordplay, and audiences made his first two records big hits. But when Costello delivered his third album, in January of that year, it was a reproach to anyone who thought they had figured out his shtick. Armed Forces represented a leap for the English singer and his band, the Attractions—a harmonic and sonic transformation. But the most remarkable thing about the record was its obsession with fascism, Nazis, and the Holocaust. A quiver of catchy riffs carries a dozen embittered songs, only to resolve in an unexpectedly earnest plea for harmony.
The extensive use of Nazi-related motifs puzzled American listeners in the late 1970s. Even now, Costello’s casual use of the Third Reich as a metaphor for the strife of personal relationships comes across as flippant and even blasphemous. Unfortunately, the imagery no longer feels quite so foreign this month, in which Costello has released a sprawling, sumptuous new deluxe box set of the album. The American president clings to power and refuses to recognize an election that defeated him. Right-wing militias plot to kidnap governors. Around the globe, people are watching as authoritarians consolidate their power and fascist movements gain followers. More than four decades after its release, Armed Forces feels more frighteningly vital and relevant than ever.