Franklin Bruno's book on *Armed Forces* gives Elvis's music the serious attention that it deserves. As someone who has had the album in fairly constant rotation since I bought it 20 years ago, I was amazed throughout by discoveries, small and large, about the album. Small discoveries: Who knew that Elvis's band listened constantly to ABBA and Cheap Trick while on tour (and that these bands left their fingerprints on his imagination)? Who knew that Elvis's version of 'Peace, Love and Understanding" cut out the satiric patter and folk-rock harmonies of the Nick Lowe original? Who knew that each of Elvis's first three albums begins with Elvis's voice unaccompanied by his band? Bruno is a wonderful 'close listener' of the music and he has a great ability not just to notice these small details but also to speculate on their meaning for Elvis's project as an artist.
Large discoveries: Bruno captures something that I've always struggled with when thinking about Elvis -- how his 'avenging dork' persona became the vehicle for a new kind of pop music, music that was witheringly critical of so much (neo-colonial adventures, power games involving sex and money, the media that turns everything into black and white) but also could be very self-critical too. Bruno suggests that the avenging dork persona was a kind of doppelganger of the 'authoritarian personality' -- the foot-soldier of reactionary movements -- and that the power of Elvis's argument with 'emotional fascism' (the album's original title) was that it was something of an internal dialogue. To me, that seems right-on, though unsettling too. Here Bruno follows the critic Greil Marcus's lead, but he's able, as a musician himself, to tie these larger questions of pop & politics to the actual sound of the music.
It's probably fair to advertise to the reader that Bruno's book is structured in a novel way -- as an 'A to Z' guide to Armed Forces, with entries that begin with 'abbreviations' and 'Accidents Will Happen' and end with Costello's novel use of the 'you' pronoun and the word 'zero' (as in Songwriting Degree Zero, or as in the song 'Less than Zero'). For me, the form worked perfectly -- it allows Bruno to spend time on fascinating digressions (i.e. the resemblance between the balance of sentimentality and satire in Chaplin's The Great Dictator and in Armed Forces), and it allows a reader who wishes to skip ahead to, say, his gloss of 'Oliver's Army' to flip ahead to the 'O' section. Those who read the book from start to finish, however, will discover that it does develop its argument, surprisingly -- very cunningly in fact -- 'from A to Z''.