If the British New Wave makes any permanent inroads into contemporary American music, it will be (as in the great invasion of the '60s) when the lyrical rage and the musical energies are forged into a single cutting edge. So long as the poetry of displacement is imprisoned in melodic redundancy -- no matter how "symbolic" those bars may be -- it will fail to capture the imagination of a popular audience accustomed to wall-of-sound production in the simplest of television commercials. Minimalist art traditionally entices only a minimal audience.

The American consumer, living in a society that celebrates The Great Middle Class, will inevitably be unreceptive to the jarring rawness of New Wave and its working-class angst. If New Wave is to take hold here, it will be through the efforts of those furthest from the punk center: those like Graham Parker and the Rumor and Nick Lowe who have wedded social criticism to competent and innovative musician-ship.Not even Dylan built the '60s in a day.

Elvis Costello is the New Wave's best shot at American success right now. He has what in political campaigns is called "the recognizability factor" -- a face like Buddy Holly, pigeon-toes and a name that's a triumph of unforgettability -- and with "Armed Forces," his third and most polished album, he stakes out New Wave's first major fiefdom in the United States.

"Armed Forces" is not an album for the unwary. The accessibility of many of the tunes disguises lyrics that range from sardonic to slashing. When a song like "Oliver's Army" opens with a ghostly echo of some Gary Lewis and the Playboys jingle, it may take several listenings to recognize it as an indictment of the military-macho from Cromwell to Churchll. And a pseudo-teeney-bopper anthem like "Chemistry Class" may camouflage the steely insinuation, "Are you ready for the final solution?"

Costello is a master -- a maniac -- of the word game, tossing puns, double entendres and inverted cliches like confetti. He has also a perfectly developed rhyme and the dramatic rhythm:

I never said I was a stool pigeon I never said I was a diplomat Everybody is under suspicion But you don't want to hear about that .

In "Party Girl" he explores that phrase in all its meanings -- the innocent party, the Party girl, the parting girl.

Even beyond his writing, which separates him from the mass of New Wave would-bes, Costello has the vast advantage of an agile and effective voice. Not only are the vocals attractive, they're far more intelligible than the run of the current import mill. Costello, like Jagger before him, can imply with his voice what he doesn't want to articulate. When he sings, "I was down upon one knee / stroking her vanity," the husky seduction of his voice on "vanity" leaves a very specific impression of the action. And on the EP (extended play, a 45 rpm-size record played at 33), which is included in several thousand of the early pressings of "Armed Forces," Costello's aching live performance of "Accidents Will Happen" is a triumph of controlled power.

"Accidents Will Happen," which is also the first cut on the LP, is a fully realized gem, undoubtedly the finest piece on the album. It will probably be the second single release (record companies cling to the theory that you release a good song first, the best song second) and should mesmerize radio programers across the spectrum.

Unaccountably, it is also being underestimated by a number of reviewers, who interpret it as a commentary on the hit-or-miss quality of true love. While this is obviously correct, it astonishingly overlooks the fact that "Accidents Will Happen" is simultaneously -- and powerfully -- on a sexual level.

Though he says he'll wait forever It's now or never But she keeps him hanging on... She says she can't go home without a chaperon. Accidents will happen, we're all hit and run You used to be a victim, now you're not the only one, Accidents will happen, we're all hit and run I don't want to hear it 'Cause I know what I've done .

The song is perfectly complemented by the music, a minor-into-major braiding of great beauty and sadness, and the fullest production on the entire album. ("Armed Forces" was produced by Lowe, whose "Pure Pop for Now People" is another strong contender for breakthrough.)

The "Armed Forces" tour, bolstered by strong album sales and the inconsiderable power of the Columbia Records militia, will carry Costello into Georgetown University April 6.