Elvis Costello works on sheer nerve and nerve without any doubt. His incredible talent is only exceeded by a remarkable drive and passion that have shown him to be one of the most significant and exceptional figures of rock-n-roll.
Costello's Get Happy is a great record which is no surprise because lie has never made anything but. Yet Armed Forces released last year was a drop in quality from his first two albums, My Aim is True and This Year's Model which established Costello not only as a major force to be reckoned with, but a man who had a chance to be one of the all time greats. If Elvis was identified to Dylan, Parker, Van Morrison and even his namesake Presley, Costello made it evident in spoken word as well as on record that he would not he satisfied until he was acknowledged and held his place among them.
The undertaking and ambition of a project like Get Happy is startling, twenty songs, ten on each side and even more amazing is the high quality throughout. The record is everything you'd expect from Costello, smart and pithy lyrics and concise streamlined music that always decorates but never dominates. It is also what you not have expected a Sam and Dave cover "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and a razor sharp "I Stand Accused" with a searing harmonica solo. These are the only two unoriginal songs of the twenty. Also unexpected is the lovely countryish waltz, "New Amsterdam."
Costello is an obsessive man who works with enough intensity and drive to power a small nuclear plant. He is said to spend every other waking moment working on songs or trying to come up with ideas. He knows he has no choice, as long as an artist is able to churn out work that speaks well of his talent he is heading forward; for once the artist looks back he is doomed. Elvis Costello to this end has said, "I'll kill myself... I don't want to be around to witness my artistic decline." So, in essence, he is fighting a battle every other artist has lost before him. If Elvis is up against a stacked deck he has decided to face the challenge by producing prolifically enough to keep the audience dazzled and the critics at bay. To do so he has had to write as if possessed, on airplanes, hotels, night and day, and nowhere has this reflected so much than on his latest writings and this is crucial to an understanding of this record.
A look at the songs that stand out immediately are two absolutely gorgeous ballads "Motel Matches" and "Riot Act" where he is so immediate as to he unnerving. In "Motel Matches" the singer has met a quick pick up and it's late at night in some motel, heaven knows where. He sings both sensually and agonized. "I wake up to the sound of an emergency / though your mind is full of love in your eyes there is a vacancy." He underplays the clue that gave her away to him: "Boys everywhere fumbling with their gadgets / I struck it luck with motel matches / falling for you without a second book / giving you away like motel matches." In "Riot Act" he is at the end of his rope and all that remains is violence and aggression at both himself and the lover he may be parting front. "Forever doesn't mean forever anymore / I said forever but it doesn't look like I'm gonna be around much anymore."
Get Happy is an incredibly personal album; it's as close to Elvis Costello or Declan Mc Manus (the man behind the image) as we're likely to get. It is an album which is never easy to listen to because of all the pain and frustrations, defeats and failures that much of the record is about. Yet Costello has articulated so carefully and honestly that he has made more than a masterpiece of a record, he, having stood naked and revealed so much of himself, has made an album which vindicates everything he has gone through. He sings in a song called "Opportunity," "I'm in a foxhole / I'm down in the trench / I'd be a hero but I can't stand the stench." Yet in the final analysis he proves himself wrong because having paid the price he remains optimistic and uptempo, and sounding like a man who returns from the war, not a casualty.
This optimism does not come by accident; Costello is too calculating and smart at this stage of the game to do anything that way. Another title for the album might be Get Less Frantic. He has toned down the anger at others and the world around him in favor of brutal introspection. He manages to come off vulnerable without being self serving for the first time.
The additional impact this gives his songs is considerable. He seems a lot more human, whether he's been "Beaten To The Punch" or chosen second to "The Imposter" or when he unleashes a scream as he does in "Human Touch" which gives the songs (most of which seem like fragments that run quickly but not silently) their full effect and potential.
Consider that in "B Movie" Elvis focuses his hostility directly saying, "B movie that's all you're to me / just a sob story / don't want no woman to act on me /...you can't feel!" Obviously instead of aiming his anger at women in general as he did earlier in his career, revenge for the years they insulted and rejected him, he has decided to try to live with them. How closely this parallels his own reconciliation with his wife and child I don't know and it is really none of my business. However, throughout the second side, Get Happy gets a little bit clearer and we see Costello as the victim and victimizer. Whatever he does it seems he can't be left alone on "Secondary Modern" he admits, "No one makes me feel like you / Now my whole world goes from blue to blue / but it won't be a problem till the girls go home." Stark stuff indeed.
Yet for all his aim at generosity Elvis can't result throwing the odd insult, "If I say I love you I must be delirious / then why are you trying to put my temperature up again," and that same song called "Man from Uncle" he smirks, "look at the man you call uncle having a heart attack around your ankles." In "New Amsterdam," a waltz with matching double edged lyrics, Costello is looking for a way out but "New Amsterdam" isn't it: "New Amsterdam it's become much too much / till I have possession of everything she touches / till I step on the break to get out of her clutches." By the final cut "High Fidelity" fades the knockout punch which has long been delivered and the impact is not less than having your insides ripped apart by a blow torch.
The album succeeds because Costello is flawless; his lyrics are excellent as they have to be for above all else the twenty songs are all short melodic confections crammed to the hilt with lyrics, jokes, insults, puns and everything else in the English language. They are delivered flawlessly for it is a revelation to find out just how great a singer Costello truly is as he proves again and again on Get Happy. In addition, The Attractions, Costello's three remarkable sidemen have their finest hour. Producer Nick Lowe takes care of the technical ends masterfully which is crucial to he record's success since Costello's voice is often multi-tracked and the effects so varied that any slip from the basher would have been costly, thankfully there are none. I remember when Costello first appeared on the scene. A lot of people thought he was a joke and, since he's always been his own best critic, perhaps both he and the album may be described best with the lyrics of "King Horse": "Filled with tenderness and brute force." More than that he stands alone.