If a recording artist is to be admired for the speed demonstrated in rattling off new material, then it should, in turn, be up to that artist to warrant the admiration by producing work of acceptable, if not glistening, quality. Occasionally they do. Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and The Beatles have all shown that to create in quantity is not necessarily to sacrifice quality. And now, with the release of his fourth album in less than three years, Get Happy, new wave godfather Elvis Costello lets us know that he is ready to join the ranks.
Costello, one of the prime innovators behind the new wave explosion, appeared for a while to be losing musical ground. His first two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, both demonstrated that the odd looking bloke with too short trousers could, in fact, write some fine songs. "Alison," "Miracle Man," "Radio Radio," and "The Beat" were all, in their strange way, rock and roll gems, classy stuff from an artist who wasn't yet ready to flaunt his feathers.
But then he stumbled. Costello's third release, Armed Forces, issued less than a year after This Year's Model, was not at all up to the caliber of either of his previous works. It was somewhat successful, for a while at least, but what probably accounted for this is the fact that Armed Forces, despite all its structural shortcomings, was released at just the right time which, within the recording industry, is almost as important, if not more so, than decent material. The new wave was riding strong and Elvis fans, despite the album's obvious calm, were adamant in insisting "surf's up."
Well it wasn't. But one listen to Get Happy will convince the adventurous that the water is once again ready for sport. Get Happy is not just musically alive. It is, to use an overworked, but nevertheless accurate term, a new direction.
"You'll have noticed that there are ten (?) tracks on each side of this," producer Nick Lowe boasts in miniature liner notes on the album's jacket, but that isn't the half of it. In addition to over forty-five minutes of finely produced music, Get Happy exudes anger, delight, and heat. It is music with a vengeance — twenty tracks of carefully restrained organ, tight bass playing, driving percussion, and harsh vocals.
Elvis Costello would probably be the last one to draw any comparison between himself and the mid-period Bob Dylan, but Get Happy might well be his Highway 61 Revisited, an album so strong that it never wears off. Which brings up another point: Get Happy, like Dylan's Highway 61, is not an immediately accessible album. The sound is not conventional and so, as a result, must be taken in gradually. But the wait is well worth it.
Most, if not all of the tracks, are just around two minutes long, enough time to develop fully, yet not so much that they become cumbersome. The key here is to say something, quickly, and then get on with the next line. As far as commercial appeal goes, "Riot Act," "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," "Possession." and "B Movie" probably stand the best chance of making the air waves. But this doesn't necessarily imply that they are best cuts. Every song on Get Happy has its place, albeit if they're not standing still. Don't drop your guard, Get Happy pulls no punches. That's it.