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Albums Of The Week: Elvis Costello and The Attractions | The Complete Armed Forces

The prolific master's landmark third album is the recipient of a lavish expansion.


THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: Personally curated by Elvis Costello, The Complete Armed Forces is the definitive statement of the legendary songwriter and musician’s revered and essential 1979 album, featuring the classic hits Accidents Will Happen, Green Shirt, Oliver’s Army and (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding. Leaving no musical stone unturned, no lyric notebook unrifled through and no detail left out, this new super deluxe edition vinyl box set is a thorough excavation of Costello’s vault from this metamorphic period of his early beginnings, painting as complete a picture as possible of the events that led to the making of the album, its creation, and the wild success that followed for him, and his band The Attractions, and ignited his career.

Armed Forces is explored across nine pieces of vinyl (3 12-inch LPs, 3 10-inch LPs and 3 7-inch singles), including a new 2020 remaster of the album, B-sides, alternate versions and outtakes, demos, and a slew of live recordings — including 23 unreleased live tracks taken from three especially riotous concerts. This lavish box set fully embraces iconic designer Barney Bubbles’ epic pop-art packaging, including the paint-splattered cover artwork (used for the American release and included in the fold-out UK version) and features a unique origami cover that folds out to beautifully display the bold art and graphics and the six vinyl LPs, which are rounded out by three 7-inch reissues of the album’s singles.

This treasure trove contains seven custom notebooks with newly updated liner notes from Costello, totaling nearly 10,000 words, facsimiles of first-draft, handwritten lyrics and examples of his lyrical working methods from his personal archive as well as rare photos, memorabilia and concert ephemera. The notebooks offer fascinating insight into Costello’s songwriting process, showing the evolution from idea to finished work, while the liners detail the making of and stories behind the songs. The accompanying photos and memorabilia provide a vivid window into this exciting era. “Most of this record was written in hotel rooms or on a tour bus, scribbled in a notebook which rarely left my side or failing this, from fragments and phrases scrawled on paper cocktail napkins or hotel notepaper,” Costello writes in the liners. The comprehensive set also includes a print of the vintage grenade and gun poster and the four original postcards of each band member. Additionally, Costello commissioned acclaimed artist Todd Alcott to create pulp novel book covers of songs from Armed Forces starring himself as the protagonist in a variety of precarious situations.

Armed Forces has been newly remastered by Costello and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig from the original analog tapes to match the sonic fidelity of the initial 1979 UK pressing. Striving for the utmost authenticity, they took care to match the feel and intention of the original mastering. “It sounds as close to the way it sounded to us in the studio as we could make it,” Costello recently revealed. “That’s a beautiful thing.” The album’s evolution is documented on the 10-inch Sketches For Emotional Fascism A.K.A. Armed Forces, which assembles together B-sides, demos and alternate versions, making many of these songs available on vinyl for the first time in decades.

Costello and The Attractions’ live prowess is fully celebrated with several previously unreleased concert recordings that bookended the recording and release of the album. Along with selections from the band’s legendary 1978 Hollywood High show, the collection shows off what a powerful force of nature the band was with three additional shows including highlights from the notorious Riot At The Regent – Live In Sydney ’78 and a Christmas Eve concert at London’s Dominion Theatre that same year, presented here as Christmas In The Dominion – Live 24th December ’78.Riot At The Regent is a souvenir from our days Down Under and a second snap-shot of The Attractions in action during six months either side of the recording of Armed Forces,” Costello pens. Continuing, “We played right up to Christmas Eve and certainly sound full of cheery spirit on Christmas In The Dominion, playing a version of No Dancing in an apparently spontaneous arrangement that sounds as if we had just heard Blondie’s Heart Of Glass on the radio and decided to re-work my song with a similar approach before closing the stand with the same song with which we had opened it: Peace Love & Understanding.

Costello’s full set at PinkPop in The Netherlands in 1979, titled Europe ’79 – Live At Pinkpop, is a thrilling concert that showcases the well-oiled band in fine form, exactly one year after their appearance at Hollywood High School, and sees them road testing songs that would end up on their followup record, 1980’s Get Happy. All of the unreleased live recordings, taken from the original 2” multitracks, have been remixed by Costello’s longtime producer and mixer Sebastian Krys, who mixed his latest album Hey Clockface and co-produced his 2018 Grammy-winning album Look Now.

Produced by Nick Lowe, Armed Forces was Elvis Costello’s third album and his second with The AttractionsSteve Nieve (keyboards), Bruce Thomas (bass) and Pete Thomas (drums) — following on from the immense success of their first effort, This Year’s Model. As a result, the songs for the album were written on the road while the band were on a non-stop tour where they were becoming tighter and tighter by the show. Moving away from the punk that inspired the previous record, Armed Forces cemented the 23-year-old Costello’s legacy as one of the most gifted and articulate songwriters of his generation. Since its release it has only grown in popularity and stature, continually landing on best albums ever lists and finding new fans each year. With The Complete Armed Forces, Costello has provided an exhaustive time capsule that lets us celebrate this timeless album and understand how it came to be.”