Crediting this song as his “Helsinki Sound”, Elvis Costello returns with a surprise solo release, No Flag. His later albums dabbled in pop-rock sounds, engaging beats that couldn’t quite hold a candle to his old work, but provided something new for hardened fans. No Flag is the return to form many have been waiting for, a sudden swerve back toward the work that gave him the big break. Performed entirely by Costello in a bid to throw out a solo piece of work, his newest release since Look Now is a surprising shift in gear for an artist with nothing left to prove.
Leaping back into the charming pop-rock of his earliest works, Costello provides a song littered with political prose that takes some time to pool a greater understanding of. He’s no stranger to politically charged motif, with Tramp Down the Dirt being a surface-level knock at the 1980s Conservatism of Britain. No Flag provides a criticism of blind allegiance to flag, culture, and God. “I’ve got a head full of ideas and words that don’t seem to belong to me” is perhaps the most cutting line from a song charged with anger, contempt and mistrust in those who find safety in weak defences of patriotism and religion. Intercutting these moments with a repetitive, nicely tuned
No Flag is quite unlike any of Costello’s songs so far. It blends his traditional guitar riffs with some clumsy but engaging backing tracks from a wide variety of instruments. Basslines, quieter drum beats and a dominating guitar pave the way for lyrics that relish in breaking free from the grasp of conventional pacing. It’s incredible to see that such an influential artist can retain the core sound for his demographic, but expand upon it in such idealistic and profoundly brash ways. His maturity as a performer expanded on in much more detail here, it shows us a side to his music that has always been there, but never touched upon fully in such a headstrong way.
The seething vocals, a coat of venom on an out of place bassline shouted down by clashing symbols and an emotive performance from the lyrics, padded out with some more experimental notions that feel more like padding than impactful. It doesn’t detract from the sound on the whole, but the intro and climax of its second chorus feel better suited to a song that isn’t a studio orchestrated cataclysm on current world politics and profound love of flags.
Still as biting and on form as he usually is, Costello provides work that would feel out of place on his latest album release, but right at home on My Aim is True or Armed Forces. A backhander to an entire ideology, mingling with a well-produced sound and consistent lyrics. Fans of his previous work will feel right at home with how consistently engaging Costello’s work is here, but for newcomers that know little of his style, this may be a throw-off. This Year’s Model feels like the precursor, a forty-year build-up to nailing the brilliant, catchy style and blending it with an important, relevant message.
You can listen to Elvis Costello’s No Flag below.