Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces (Super Deluxe Edition)

There’s not usually a lot to say about “super deluxe” re-issues. Listener interest usually depends on how much the particular listener likes the artist and these releases where no stone is left unturned are full of what the super-fan might call essential and everyone else would call filler. And so it is with this “deluxe” version of my favorite Elvis Costello record (with the Attractions or otherwise). There are nine pieces of vinyl (3×12″, 3×10″ and 3×7″) containing the remastered LP, outtakes and live sets from at least four different shows. Most of the material is cool, but unessential and/or previously released.

To their credit, the live recordings do feel live. The songs are quicker and more urgent and the crowd noise is not totally filtered out, but as much as I love Armed Forces, I’m not sure I need to hear all of these recordings. For instance, the version of “Big Boys” from the Pinkpop show is not so different from the one at the Regent Theatre. Both are listenable and I have a slight preference for latter, but only a Costello nut probably feels the need to hear both. The Live at Hollywood High tracks have already seen the light of day on a 2002 “deluxe” re-issue, so anyone who needs to hear them already has.

Outtakes are always a mixed bag. Titled Sketches for Emotional Fascism, the ones included here are largely included on 1980’s Taking Liberties outtakes release. “Clean Money” would probably make it on a lot of records in 1979, but it’s pretty clear why it wasn’t on a proper album given the quality of what Costello was doing at the time. “Talking in the Dark” probably should have stayed in the vault yet here finds yet another appearance. Of the two songs that did make Armed Forces in different versions, “Big Boys” feels more incomplete than alternate., but the demo version of “Green Shirt” is probably the only thing over the course of 60 tracks and 198 minutes that I was really excited about. Maybe it’s because it’s my favorite song on the record, but the stripped down demo version really makes it clear how good a song it was from the start. Laid bare as just voice and acoustic guitar, the song is every bit as good as the final version.

Along with the music, there are the requisite non-musical bonus materials. Frankly, I’m not sure who wants to read Costello go on about his music for nearly 10,000 words though.

As super deluxe releases go, Armed Forces had the potential to be one of the better ones, up there with U2’s super deluxe version of Joshua Tree. A few interesting outtakes and some good live material give the release a lot of appeal if you really love Elvis Costello, but as much as I do, especially this record, there was little I found essential and far too much that many of us already have on other records. If there wasn’t enough “new” material to warrant nine pieces of vinyl, maybe the release should have been scaled back. More is not always actually more.

Released: November 6, 2020

About bobvinyl

bobvinyl, writer and co-editor of No Song is an Island, founded its predecessor, Rock and Roll and Meandering Nonsense (whose archives are found here), in 2005 and served as editor and principal contributor until it went on hiatus in 2010. He has also been published in AMP and Loud Fast Rules! (in print) as well as Glide and FensePost on the web. He has been an avid record collector since he was seven years old and enjoys sharing his love of music from the common to the esoteric.

3 thoughts on “Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces (Super Deluxe Edition)

  1. Chuck

    So what, in your experience and opinion, makes a good “super deluxe” version of a record? What would have made a good version of this particular record?

    I can only speak at a hypothetical level since (a) I rarely buy deluxe re-releases, and (b) don’t care for Elvis Costello, but I definitely agree with you that it seems disingenuous to release a bunch of outtakes that have already seen the light of day and similar-sounding live tracks. I also agree that it’s the rare musician who can write 10,000 compelling autobiographic words, though I certainly do appreciate a well-written, Nat Hentoff-style essay when I run across one. You know, the essay by the professional listener who is definitely a fan but also has enough knowledge and objectivity to transcend that fan-ness and share something unique and valuable about the artist or record.

    Your comment about “Green Shirt” is yet another reminder of the producer my old band worked with who tried to explain to us that the true measure of a song’s worth was whether it could be played on an acoustic guitar. While she was limited in her thinking (“A Love Supreme” on acoustic guitar?), I’ve come to realize the truth of her perspective. We fought against her using the rationale that “you can’t play Nine Inch Nails on acoustic guitar, man.” Then ten years later, Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” came out and taught me the boundless depths of my ability to be an ignorant ass.

  2. bobvinyl Post author

    Really the extended length of the CD almost always resulted in non-essential tracks, so a deluxe or super deluxe re-issue is non-essential almost by definition, but that’s okay. I think they key to it still serving its purpose for its limited audience is that it have things that are either unavailable or difficult to find and also meaningful. The latter is a bit subjective, but I would think it would include a particularly good live show, a demo version that exposes something interesting that didn’t make it to the standard release and maybe a few tracks that didn’t make the cut only because the original album was so good. The Beatles Anthologies had a lot of filler, but there were some interesting things that made them worth it, because it showed the genesis of some great songs or variations that they played with before settling on one. The Joshua Tree super deluxe had a great concert and quality rarities/b-sides (though the b-sides were already easy to come by). I wasn’t as thrilled with the 2017 remixes, but they were at least an interesting addition.

    I think the litmus test of playing a song on an acoustic guitar is a good one. There are exceptions, but it is a rule of thumb more than an absolute. I also think it applies to pop and rock more than other more complicated genres. Was that story the first thing you thought of after hearing Johnny Cash do “Hurt?”

  3. Chuck

    I don’t recall if there was an immediate “a ha!” moment when I first heard “Hurt” or if it took some time for me to discover the beautiful irony in having my foolish arrogance revealed. In retrospect it feels like it was instant but I think that’s also probably my arrogance at work.

    Interesting to compare the value of super-deluxe releases for albums before ~1985 and after, because you’re right: there was much less need for the belated reveal of lost tracks when artists had 80 minutes to play with. Oddly, now that there is literally no limit on album length, it almost seems like many artists have reverted to shorter run times, maybe because there’s also less sense in the Spotify age that, “I’m not paying $12 for 6 songs.”


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