To some Elvis Costello fans. Get Happy! may, upon first listen, seem somewhat disappointing. Coming about a year on the heels of what is probably his most popular (though not necessarily finest) album, Armed Forces and a whirlwind North American tour, which, though plagued by stories of his "racist" and Anti-American comments, firmly secured his position as one of contemporary rock 'n' roll's best lyricists, songwriters and performers. His draining performances displayed the seething anger and hurricane energy of his material.Get Happy was anxiously awaited. Early reports from Costello's studio during the recording sessions said that there would be about 20 songs on the new LP, and everyone figured that this would be a two record set.
But Elvis, as always, has never been an artist who was content to merely adhere to expectations or trends, and he released Get Happy! as a single album, with 10 songs per side, none longer than 3:30 and most of them in the 2-3 minute range. On his second record, This Year's Model, he expanded the uptempo style of My Aim is True with a harder edge to his music, fused by increased use of the synthesizer. Likewise, on Armed Forces, his music continued to mature, and the synthesizer and keyboards of Steve Naive took the music to new heights. On Get Happy! Elvis has once again taken his music into a different direction, and above all, confirms Elvis' refusal to compromise his artistic innovation and experimentation with commercial technique. In "Secondary Modern," he asks his lover, "Is it pleasure or business?" and then expresses his melancholy sadness at not being accepted, while at the same time refusing to pay "lip service" to maintain their relationship. More than any previous Elvis LP, the focus here is on love. Elvis, throughout the record expresses his inability to accept anything less than true, whole love, just as he is unable to compromise his true creativity with commercialism. Rather than stick to the longer structures of previous albums, the songs on Get Happy! are short and to the point. The lyrical content likewise does not hesitate: even when accepted, Elvis' desire for sexual fulfillment does not overwhelm his desire for a whole and complete emotional relationship.
As mentioned, the focus is on love, but Costello's confrontation with it here is vastly different from his previous LP's and the hint is on the cover, where side one is labeled side two, and vice versa. Something is different here, and Elvis wants one to catch it. There is no longer the sexually frustrated adolescent who demanded "Why don't you tell me 'bout the Mystery Dance," or the alienated lover who confides "Sometimes I almost feel / just like a human being," who viewed love as "Just a tumor / You've got to / Cut it out," sentiments expressed on his previous LP's. On "I Stand Accused," he offers "a love that won't die," and "Love for Tender" challenges his "unsure" girl, to "total up your love on a balance sheet."
Throughout his dealings with love on this album (which are 19 of the 20 songs), Costello's sincerity is at the basis of his every action. As he sings, "I need the human touch," he refers to the emotional bond of love, as he rejects superficial physical lust for sincerity.
Elvis remains one of rock 'n' roll's best writers. In "Opportunity," he warns his new girlfriend, "This is your big opportunity" "What ever you do / Don't turn around." in "Man Called Uncle," he weeds through the false vows of an insincere lover, "Now there's newsprint all over your face / Well maybe that's why I can read you like a book / Just when I thought I was getting my taste to bite / I go and lose my appetite... Did I say I love you? / Then I must be delirious." He gives his ex-lover a "B" as he rejects her lustful shallowness in "B Movie." His bitterness remains whether rejecting an unworthy lover or being rejected himself, but he understands the reason for it now. In "No Action," an old song, his love was just a "pain in my head," which he did not understand. Now he is older, and a little wiser, so he gives away his insincere girlfriend like "Motel Matches," because her deficient love is worthless.
The bouncy melodies, like "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," "Beaten to the Punch," "Love for Tender," etc., seem to be harmonic and happy, and hence not as biting as before. This smoothness seems to correspond to Elvis' understanding of male-female relationships in a moral perspective. Also, the tenderness of his sincerity is expressed in a relatively softer musical approach.
Nonetheless, Costello has by no means lost his touch for writing catchy music, as "I Stand Accused," "King Horse," and, in fact, the entire album proves. The difficulty his followers will experience is the transition from the all-out attack of Armed Forces to the more subtle, albeit still powerful, approach of Get Happy! While Armed Forces and This Year's Model will probably remain the favorite albums of most Elvis fans, this record will draw many more, and so cannot be dismissed. The man remains as single minded as ever, even with this softer approach, and as Pete Townshend said, "the music must change." Besides, if 20 new songs from Elvis Costello and the Attractions doesn't make you happy, what will?