Many listeners heard "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding," the closing tune of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces, as a cynical joke. The Rolling Stone Record Guide says of Costello that "His coldness is his only drawback." But Get Happy!!, Costello's fourth LP, makes clear that his asserted themes of "hate, guilt and revenge" are just surface symptoms of the romantic passion at the broken heart of his music. It's a twice-shy kind of love of which Elvis sings; burned by love on "Human Touch," he tells his lover "You can't feel," while on "High Fidelity" his oft-repeated question is "Can you hear me?"
It's tempting to consider Get Happy!! as a whole work, much like one can read a series of Charles Bukowski short stories as a novel. This album, however, presents 20 different songs, 18 of them Costello originals, and each tune has its own memorable hook. Drums dominate; the guitar is used for rhythmic chording, never solos, and Naive's keyboards mostly offer bouncy fills to counterpoint Costello's vocals. Elvis knows how to use his limited voice, singing ahead of the beat and whipping a tune like Beaten To The Punch to a frenzy.
The best numbers, as usual, have a deja vu quality. The anguished ballad "Motel Matches" must have played on the jukeboxes of country taverns years ago. Sounding like a Phil Spector submissive, Elvis pleads, as proof of his love, that his woman read him the "Riot Act." The LP's closer, "High Fidelity," comes on like macho Motown. Tops in my book is the cover of "I Stand Accused." Taken at a frantic pace, with energized organ, a hot, unexpected harmonica break, and claims of guilt, it fits Elvis like a bondage suit. Small delights throughout: deranged yelps closing "Punch"; the "tenderness and brute force" refrain of "King Horse"; Elvis trading phrases with himself on "Black And White World," creating new wave call-and-response.
The sheer number of songs causes a slight blur, but each tune achieves an identity after a few listenings. Addition of some instrumental solos would make the songs more complete. Another problem is producer Nick Lowe's mix, which often obscures lyrics — and Costello is one of the few rockers who wouldn't be often embarrassed by a lyrics sheet.
Elvis is still waiting for the end of the world (who isn't?) and would like some refuge while waiting. On "Riot Act" he seems to flee his own persona, singing, "With all this dum-dum insolence / I would be happier with amnesia." The singer's brutish public image is also contradicted by Bebe Buell, girlfriend to rock stars, in a recent Oui interview. "Elvis never puts me down," she said. "He was probably the most romantic thing that ever happened to me." His may be a suspicious, guarded romance for a new world. But as the corpses of countless punk and new wave rock bands show, anger will only carry an artist a short way. Even though he's loath to show it, Elvis Costello is a romantic, and that's the soul of his music.