A long time ago, Lucio Pozzi gave me a piece of advice I’ve taken to heart ever since. He said that you should always have multiple projects going to make the best use of available time, some for when you can concentrate with no interruptions, and some that can be added to whenever you have a few minutes. For me, reading can be dealt with similarly, though it’s as much a question of size and weight as of time: there are some books you don’t want to lug around — you read them at a big table at home. But then you need another book to put in your jacket pocket, ready for the next ride on the subway. Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of paperbacks on noteworthy rock and pop albums have clearly been designed with the jacket pocket in mind. But that’s not the only thing that interests me about them. I keep wondering whether it’s really possible to write at length and in depth about this kind of music. So far, the 33 1/3 books I’ve read have left me on the fence — better as cultural history than as music criticism, when what I really want is something to help me better understand how the music works. Now, Armed Forces is not the Elvis Costello record I’m most interested in — I’d have preferred to read about Get Happy!! or a couple of the others. His third album, Armed Forces represents the first intimation of what would be, to my mind, Costello’s artistic downfall: trying too hard. As Franklin Bruno says, songs such as “Oliver’s Army” and “Chemistry Class” are “in part stunt songwriting.” But I decided to give this book a try precisely because it’s by Bruno, both a musician and a poet, which gave me hope that he could get inside the music technically and yet communicate it beyond the technical. Plus, who better than a poet to handle Costello’s gnarly wordplay with aplomb? It was a good bet. After all, as Bruno says of one song — but this is typical of Costello — “the craft is precise; the content is obscure.” Bruno digs into both, and the somewhat eccentric structure he’s chosen for the book helps: a list of entries ranging in length from a couple of lines to several pages and arranged alphabetically — that is to say, at once systematically and arbitrarily — so that connections are implicit, inconspicuously woven through the text. This makes sense when a piece of writing has to touch on so many different levels of craft and content, whose mutual interweaving can only ever be intuitive. And luckily for me, the format allows for a long excursus on Get Happy!! (which Bruno spells with just one exclamation point) as the follow-up to Armed Forces. Naturally, there are some roads untaken. For instance, in anatomizing Costello’s idea of “emotional fascism,” Bruno might have looked into Michel Foucault’s preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972), or almost anything by Ingeborg Bachmann, who once called fascism “a primary element in the relationship between a man and a woman.” Listening to Armed Forces again for the first time in ages after having read Bruno’s analysis, I could hear more in it. I like having my ignorance remedied. How else would I have ever understood that “Oliver’s Army” is a takeoff on ABBA?

Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces (2005) is published by Bloomsbury and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...