"And I was just a boy and then we're men," Elvis Costello sings on "Black and White World." And with his newest album, Costello proves that he has grown up. Despite his brilliance on his first three albums, Costello has always been an extremely limited artist, able to express only hate, rage and variations thereon. With Get Happy!! Costello rejects his image as angry young misanthrope and grudgingly accepts his vulnerability. Hurt, he refuses to lash out; indeed, he becomes downright introspective. The resulting album is an extraordinarily moving testament to Costello's newfound maturity.
"B Movies" tells part of the story. Through most of the song, Elvis rants at his female companion like the Elvis we'd come to know and love/hate. "B movie, that's all you're to me / Just a sad sob story / Don't want no woman to adore me." But the song is more than pure rant. "Don't want some fool asking me `Why?' / When I find you're finally making me cry." In the past, Elvis's scorn undercut any expressions of tenderness he may have tried; here, it's the other way around. Costello's reluctant admission of vulnerability carries more force than his now familiar adolescent anger.
Cuts both ways
And, more than ever before, Costello's attacks on others have a double edge; they can easily serve as self-criticism. The man who sings "Trying to be so bad is bad enough / Gonna make me laugh by talking tough / Don't wear your heart out on your sleeve / When your remarks are off the cuff" could very well be speaking to the Elvis Costello of This Year's Model. But if anything, Costello seems a bit frightened by the new side of himself that he has discovered. He couples the confession that he needs the "human touch" with the declaration "I don't want to know much about much." Throughout, Elvis appears as a man still afraid to confront his real emotions. Only two of the albums' twenty songs run more than three minutes — most clock in at less than two and a half — as if Costello is scared to hold on to any thought for too long, afraid of what the song might reveal. The vocals are mixed very low so that lyrics are even harder to catch than usual. Even the title of the album is an evasion. Costello apparently wants to announce that he has changed, but can't bring himself to admit the nature of the change. So he presents the album in which Elvis Costello learns he's vulnerable as the album in which he gets happy. Anyone listening to Get Happy!! for signs of contentment would have to dismiss the title as simple irony and that would, no doubt, please Costello greatly.
The new range in his material places new demands on Costello's voice, always a limited instrument at best, and he rises to the occasion, at times spectacularly.
He slips into a heart-rendering falsetto in the middle of "Secondary Modern," for instance, and howls like a man wracked with pain on "Beaten to the Punch." His singing on the last verse of "Riot Act" suggests anger, pain and humility all at once. He has a ways to go before he can rival the truly great rock singers (e.g., Dylan, Van Morrison, Jagger or Neil Young), but his singing on Get Happy!! is an impressive achievement nonetheless.
But while he has learned to use his voice effectively, Costello shows signs of letting his greatest talent — his verbal cleverness — run amok. Too many songs "5ive Gears in Reverse", for instance) are constructed around word-play for its own sake; too many puns ("Step on the brake to get out of her clutches") have no real point. Costello risks becoming as a lyricist what Keith Emerson is as a keyboardist: a showoff who flaunts his cleverness at the expense of substance.
Get Happy!! is not the great album Elvis Costello has it in him to make. He still cannot put his emotions into perspective, find a greater meaning for his pain than personal tragedy. But Get Happy!! expresses personal emotion convincingly and movingly. Costello shows that his range is far wider than one would guess from his first three albums and confirms what those albums could only make us suspect: He has the potential to be one of the greatest artists working today in any medium.