Even taking into consideration the increasingly erratic recorded performances that Linda Ronstadt has given us in the last couple of years, it is hard to believe that anyone gifted with her not inconsiderable talents could have delivered such a horribly confused and wrong-headed mess as Mad Love. The new album turns the tentative step toward harder rock that Ronstadt took on 1978's Living in the U.S.A. into a full-fledged pratfall — undisciplined, unfocused, and uncontrolled. It's not that Linda can't sing rock; "How Do I Make You" kicks as hard as anything Patti Smith ever did, and with a lot less pretentiousness.
Since she doesn't write any of her own material, Ronstadt falls into the potentially dangerous trap of having to rely on natural instinct to choose songs that are both interesting and suited to her style of talent. To this end, she has always been willing to take a chance on unknowns, and her recordings have introduced us to the likes of J.D. Souther, Karla Bonoff, and Warren Zevon. This time around, however, her instinct and common sense has deserted her entirely.
The highlights of Mad Love are a couple of tunes by Mark Goldenberg. After that things go from bad to worse, with the bad being merely inconsequential and the worse being absolutely horrendous. New versions of "Can't Let Go," "Hurt So Bad," and "Look Out For My Love" aren't so much had as they are unnecessary, and they only serve to remind you of how much you liked the originals.
The core of the album is three fine songs by Elvis Costello, and, although Ronstadt did a commendable job of covering "Alison," here is where she makes Mad Love a disaster. Dave Edmunds' had a modest hit last year with a version of "Girls Talk" that cuts Linda's to shreds for power and clarity. "Party Girl," one of the highlights of Costello's Armed Forces, becomes one of the most embarrassing moments in Ronstadt's career. Costello begins by berating his party girl for being what she is only to realize by the song's end that she's only what he wants her to be, and confesses "I'm a guilty party, and I want my slice." Without being chauvinistic, this is a singularly male point of view, and Ronstadt only succeeds in making it a whine of self pity.
One can hardly fault Ronstadt's infatuation with Costello's work, however. He is unarguably one of the most fascinating figures to emerge on the rock horizon in the past several years. Get Happy! finds him in fine form once again. The new album boasts twenty songs that roll off the turntable like machine-gun fire. It's dance music for Armageddon, and at first listening there's almost too much to digest in one sitting. This album is piled deep with hooks, and it takes a few times through before they start sorting themselves out. It's worth the wait.
Elvis is a definite eighties sensibility filtered through a sixties sound. This album finds him "living in air conditioned limbo" and vacillating somewhere "between tenderness and brute force." Everything works here, from the nervously compelling rhythms to Steve Naive's signature roller-rink keyboards to (especially) the lyrics. Very few songwriters can stand with Costello when it comes to acerbic social criticism, terse observation, or lacerating wit. He tackles greed ("money talks, and it's persuasive"), the joy of modern living ("looks like a luxury, feels like a disease"), even love ("Now, I'm looking for a little girl, I wonder where she's gone? / Big money for families having more than one"). "The chairman of this boardroom is a compliment collector," he notes in "Opportunity," "I'd like to be his funeral director." This man is clearly not about to kiss anyone's arse.
Life may not be a bowl of cherries for Mr. Costello, but his sense of humor keeps him, and us, from getting too depressed about it. He sums up even the bitterest defeat with his tongue firmly in cheek: "Now, there's newsprint all over your face / Maybe that's why I can read you like a book / Just when I thought I was getting my tasty bite / I go and lose my appetite."
It's sad. Elvis Costello is clearly getting better with each successive album, but he won't get the hearing that fading superstar like Linda Ronstadt will. Her abject failure with his songs is as bold a testament as any I can think of that you can't rely on surrogates to show you all that Costello can offer. Linda will go gold; Elvis won't. That's funny in a way, but it's also more than a little bit galling. As Elvis himself might say, "Some things you never get used to." But do yourself a favor: forget Mad Love and get happy!