Perhaps the best capsule summary for Get Happy!! (Columbia JC 36347), Elvis Costello's jam-packed 20-song fourth album, is provided by the artist himself in the track "5ive Gears in Reverse": after a string of mostly unintelligible verbiage, the line "and you can't even catch your breath" comes darting out, grabbing your attention for just an instant before being supplanted by more muffled vocals and then a series of three electric organ stabs by Steve Naive as Costello calls out "Oh! Oh! Oh!" in his best neo-Motown style
At the onset, Get Happy!! is disconcerting and elusive — the songs hurtle by like a subway, short quick trips interspersed with frequent stops, never really allowing you to get settled before it's time for a new jolt and a new leg of the trek. As it was with My Aim Is True, Costello's first LP in 1977, the songs seem like vignettes, underdeveloped ideas that ___l just as you start to warm to them. But, again like that first album, there's a certain pleasure in this as Costello clicks from one channel in his consciousness to another, as if issuing a challenge to the listener to keep up. There is a variance and craftsmanship present but it takes longer to find it, to sort one song from another, to allow the abbreviated structures to sink in.
Get Happy!! is a fairly radical departure from Costello's last record. Armed Forces, in that it has little of the latter's luxurious breadth, its sense of popflourish. Get Happy!! is a tight, constricted album that borders on the claustrophobic — producer Nick Lowe has compacted the Attractions' sound, making them less dynamic and allowing little of the effective tension that aided "Green Shirt," "The Beat," or "Watching the Detectives." But neither is Get Happy!! a vocalist's album.
Lowe has maddeningly half-buried Costello in the mix so that, although Costello's gem-like wordplay surfaces now and then ("The chairman of this boardroom is a compliment collector / I'd like to be his funeral director"), the overall meaning of most songs is lost or at least cloudy. That said, it is impossible to miss the driving intensity Costello brings to his music and one of his greatest strengths is the ability to make a single line (or couplet) stand out and capture a feeling that may or may not be connected to the rest of the song — think of the lilting "I'd rather be anywhere else than here today" refrain in "Oliver's Army" on Armed Forces.
Give Get Happy!! some time and it begins to make sense — not as much as you might want, perhaps, but enough to demonstrate that this year's Elvis still has a lot (that matters) to say and a roving musical ear that will go anywhere to find a suitable framework to put it in.
Again, influences from the '60s — a bit of the Doors' in "Love for Tender," a nick from the Association's "Windy" in "Temptation," coarse vocals overriding a Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup" feel in "High Fidelity" and a cover of Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."
But as much as Costello borrows musical ideas, his songs resolutely have a fresh urgency to them. He can pinpoint a cogent thought with startling clarity: a wry comment on war in "Opportunity" — "I'm in the foxhole, I'm down in the trench; I'd be a hero but I can't stand the stench," dissecting a fading lover's attitude in the lush "New Amsterdam" — "Everything you may say now sounds like it was ghostwritten," or making plain the deep feeling for an old pop song in "King Horse" — "See I knew that song so long before we met / That it means much more than it might." All concise, all on target.
And then there times when he'll leave you hanging. In the brooding "Secondary Modern" Costello informs, "There won't be a problem ... 'til the girls go home." What? What problem? How do you mean that?
What we've got is a paradoxical album — it's bright but it's crammed, it's clever but it's murky, it's propulsive but it doesn't grab you right off. Is it recommended? Sure. I've gone from being puzzled and bothered by it initially to being intrigued and moved to dance now. Yes, it's taken some time — and I still have reservations — but it's been time well spent. And the damned thing keeps creeping up on me — another 25 listens and it'll probably have me won over completely. And then I'll be real happy.