Musically, Elvis Costello's new album, Get Happy!!, reflects a firm, mature, conservative rock 'n' roll aesthetic. Costello and the Attractions settle for a long (20 cut) set of carefully constructed, tightly stacked tunes which never really go beyond the boundaries set up in their last two albums, This Year's Model and Armed Forces.
Costello picked up the Attractions after his first album, My Aim is True. With the new band came a more complex backdrop for the already intricate lyrics, and with each successive work, producer Nick Lowe generally enriched the sound. Armed Forces was an experimental, stylistically attractive album, overflowing with potential direction.
On first listen, Get Happy!!, gives the impression that Costello has finally hit a dead end, instead of expected progressions in style and production we get a refinement of form.
The high-handedness that was apparent in Armed Forces is tactfully avoided. There are no fancy excursions like "Green Shirt," no self-conscious Beatles derivations, no glitzy indulgences by Lowe in the production department.
With ten songs per side, this no-frills approach is not only excusable, but is necessary to the unity of Get Happy!!. Restraint and pacing are key words here — five or six beautiful slow ballads are tucked between neat strings of quick, dense, concise rock 'n' roll. All songs fall in the one-to-three minute time frame. Costello's guitar is heard only as a modest part of the band, except for one brief Sun-records-style solo on "Five Gears in Reverse."
This doesn't imply a lack of complexity. It's just that Costello seems more confident than ever in his subtler embellishments. A few interesting vocal experiments stand out, and many songs are tastefully double-tracked. And the organist continues to unleash more nuance with each song.
There seem to be two musical camps in rock/new wave music today. On one side are the "neo-traditionalists" who can apply energy and imagination to standard genres (The Clash. The Cars, The Police, Blondie, etc.), and the opposite side is populated by bands like Pere Ubu, Devo, B-52's, Contortions, and Talking Heads, where convention exists solely to be fucked with, often at the expense of humanity.
Costello knows where his allegiance lies, and takes a poke at the Ubu Crew in "Human Touch":
I know I just gotta get out of this place,
I can't stand any more of that mechanical craze.
Though you say its only an industrial squeeze,
It looks like luxury, it feels like disease.
Which brings us to the lyrical content of Get Happy!!. With 20 songs it's hard to sum things up, and Elvis packs them words in denser than ever. As usual, he comes out squawking and bleeding like a Calvinist with its head cut off. But his stance is softened in places by a melancholic, confessional mood. Art as exorcism of guilt?
All the tricks are present — the cute turns of phrase (and turns of praise), weird punning, extended metaphor. It's all pretty bitter and unsentimental. Here's a few classic words from "Opportunity":
I'm in the foxhole, I'm down in the trench,
I'd he a hero, but I can't stand the stench.
This is getting happy? Him and Tolstoy would get along fine.