Who is Elvis Costello, and why is he saying all those terrible things about the human race?
Costello is no longer the anonymous angry warbler of his first two albums, but is now simply an angry warbler. And, when we ask, "Who are you, Elvis C.?", what we really mean is, "What are you?"
Costello's fourth album for Columbia Records, Get Happy, sheds little light on the man of mystery. It merely serves to reinforce what we already know of him: that he is enigmatic, venomous, and, more than ever before, given to irony and a near-constant succession of puzzling word games.
In classic Costello style, the only thing "happy" about Get Happy is the title.
And that's strange, because the overwhelming message of this release is "love." Normally we might expect a work focused on that eternal subject to be either joyous (probably impossible in the case of this artist) or imbued with painful heartbreak. Get Happy is neither. In fact, Costello is not somewhere between the two extremes, he is somewhere else entirely.
In short, this British New Wave master is too cynical to get happy over anything (especially love), but too detached to ever properly convey the oft-experienced pain of human relationships.
So, why an album about the joy-agony of love?
This artist, propelled by a snake-like vindictiveness and all the compassion of a weasel, probably found the subject too hard to resist.
If the listener has the patience to translate Costello's lyrics, he will find no joy here, and no pain. Instead, he will find 20 succinct little tunes, each one an expression of Elvis C.'s apparent personal vendetta against love, hate, and a million other human emotions. Costello seems the perfect embodiment of the "Me Generation" ideal: emotionless, armored against hurt, and cruelly truthful.
But, just when we are convinced (20 times over) that Costello is that, he beseeches us with a cry of, "I need, I need, I need the human touch" from "Human Touch." Is this the return trip of a schizophrenic, or just more wordplay?
It is just such confusion, reinforced by puns and double-meanings, that alienates us from Costello and frees him to express himself without being discovered.
We become so detached from the emotional aspects of the frustrated, futile relationships be paints that we begin to feel like voyeurs watching a series of decadent Fellini-like scenes. It is a challenge to us, and, perhaps, a tribute to the peculiar genius of Costello.
His lyrics on this work serve to confuse us even further as to his real motives and feelings.
In "New Amsterdam" — a circular song, constructed like a snake eating its own tail — he queries, "Do I step on the brake to get out of her clutches? Do I speak double-Dutch to a real double-duchess?" New Amsterdam (New York), he says, "You've become much too much." Yet, he compares Gotham with London, where, "I look right at home after being like an exile," but, also where the "transparent people who live on the other side" live "...a life that is almost like suicide." Is he saying that there is no place for him? Or, is he referring to his tour of the states last year, when he made his now-famous Ray Charles statement, a quote that made him somewhat of a social outcast here?
In "Motel Matches" Costello reaffirms his apparent beliefs that everything on this planet is a slight bit sordid. This is not just your average "red light" song, though. It's spiced with tragic inevitability, and more punning, with lines like, "They're giving you away like motel matches."
All of his negatively judgemental comments on love, in particular, and society, in general, reach a crescendo of confusion as "Hi Fidelity" states, "Some things you never get used to, even though you're feeling like another man." Again, questions are raised. Is Costello saying you feel like someone else, or that you desire another "male" lover? And, what about the duality of sexual roles implied here?
Aside from the massive enigma created by the lyrics, Get Happy is a laudable achievement for Costello musically. Backed up by The Attractions, he successfully attempts a variety of styles, ranging from "5ive Gears in Reverse," an agitated rocker, to the gospel-country sound of "Motel Matches."
He has succeeded in finding a middle ground between the spare instrumentation of his first two efforts, and the majestic production of last year's Armed Forces.
Yes, the album can be enjoyed, but don't get too serious about it. Maybe that's Costello's message.
Oh, and one other thing. The first and second sides of the album are reversed. Or is it just the jacket titles that are reversed? Or....