Let's say right off the bat that Elvis Costello is one of the artists, along with Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, that I compare the rest of the artists in contemporary music to. Last year's Armed Forces, with Born to Run, Peter Gabriel and Never Mind the Bollocks: Here's the Sex Pistols, is one of my four favorite records ever.
Disclaimer out of the way, let me say that Get Happy!! is the hest album so far this year. It is also one of the longest. As the ad says — "20 Hits! — 20!!"
Truer words were never spoken. Every song on the album is a potential hit, if not for Elvis then for a whole fleet of artists who cover other people's material. Linda Ronstadt, George Jones, Rachel Sweet and Dave Edmunds are artists who have already scored hits with Costello songs.
Why is Elvis so good? Because he has gone back to the formative years of rock 'n' roll, when it was sometimes politely referred to as "negro music," and to the country western of the same period for his impiration. The same music that influenced Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly and the Beatles has influenced Costello. All of the wit, humor and basically fun sound of those early records is present on his own. But since Elvis is an artist he has interpereted it his own way, regardless of trends and record sales demographics.
While that may explain the music, nothing short of psychoanalysis can explain his lyrics. Constantly rearranging metaphors and old sayings, every song Elvis writes contains three or four lines like this one from "Opportunity."
"The chairman of the board is a compliment collector / I'd like to be his funeral director."
Well, it's safe to say that he wants to see the guy dead, but he doesn't really think the guy is worth the trouble of bumping off. Besides, you can go to jail for that kind of thing.
In fact, Elvis doesn't seem to hate anyone. Contempt and loathing seem to be his primary negative emotions.
But Get Happy!! is not a negative album. More than anything it is a musical attempt to come to terms with emotion, in particular the emotion he sang about in This Year's Model's "Lipstick Vogue" — "sometimes I think of love as just a tumor / you've got to cut out."
The psychoanalyst would say that the catalyst for this album was the reconciliation of Elvis and his wife after a separation. Listening will just appreciate the ambiguity of lines like these from "Man Called Uncle" — "I could swear, I could promise I would always be lovin' you / but then again I'd live to be so old / I could even say that I would do something new to you / other girls I see just leave me cold."
While the outcome of his emotional battle is still up in the air, it is significant that Get Happy!! contains the first honest-to-god love songs that Elvis has ever recorded. Judging from the covers he finds them hard to write. "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and "I Stand Accused," the only covers on the album, are both rocking "lost-love" songs (circa 1960?) placed on Get Happy!! to show that Elvis can feel love but still finds it difficult to write about. But when he does write about it, well... Before I bought Get Happy!! I had managed to narrow down by absolute favorite rock 'n' roll songs to two — Bowies "Heroes" and Springsteen's "Backstreets." Both are songs about love, pain and ultimate triumph over everything in life that throws you. Costello's "Riot Act" has joined Bowie's Father and Springsteen's Son as the Holy Spirit in my rock 'n' roll Trinity.
There is no real way to describe the power and passion of this sound, it is dionysian in its intensity. The quavery opening as Elvis discovers that "Forever doesn't mean forever anymore," builds as "the beat gets so tropical / and the talk gets so topical." The emotion in his voice almost makes you forget that this may be Nick Lowe's best production job, the Attractions' best performance. It all comes together in an ending that can only be compared to, well, Springsteen's "Backstreets."
"Tryin' to be bad is bad enough / don't make me laugh by talkin' tough / don't put your heart out on your sleeve / when your remarks are off the cuff... Riot act / you can read me the riot act / you can hate me..." Fred Nietzsche, after his rejection by Lou Salome, would have loved this song.
Pick up on Get Happy!!. It's not really as heavy as I have presented it and taken as a whole it lives up to its title. And with 20 hits totalling 48 minutes of music, it would be a bargain at twice the price.