Elvis Costello's music is not innovative, experimental or even especially original. His records are such collections of well-worn melodies and pop cliches that listening to them can be like attending Western Pop Music 101. But like all talented pop musicians he knows how to put the most hackneyed ingredients together in a way that makes them sound new. Get Happy, Costello's newest album, is no exception. It is his first successfully thematic album. This Year's Model might have had more first rate songs, but Get Happy has a better structure. There are ten songs per side, each running under three minutes. Each is a tiny fragment of pop history. Each makes its point and then fades out, leaving the listener longing for more. This format makes Get Happy Costello's richest and most accessible album, if not his best.
After one superficial listen — Get Happy sounds forgettable, but after repeated listening it is absolutely satisfying. Nick Lowe's production is as always, exceptional. From the Spectoresque big sound of "Possession" to the dub production on "B-Movie," Lowe is able to find the right sound at every turn. Along with the remarkable versatile Attractions, Lowe gives Costello the ability to take on diverse styles as if he were picking them out of a book.
On "Beaten to the Punch" the band sounds like Booker T. and the MGs, and Costello sounds like the blue-eyed soul singer I've always suspected him to be. His rave-up on Jerry Butler's "I Stand Accused" is reminiscent of the early Rolling Stones. "Motel Matches" is a melodramatic country number. "Human Touch" is a ska tune, which eclipses most of what the Specials and Madness are doing in that genre. "High Fidelity" contains the album's most instantly catch hook, and "New Amsterdam," the album's only ballad, contains the most memorable line, "Though I look right at home, I still feel like an exile."
Elvis Costello should be a popstar. His brand of intelligently-composed pop music is exactly what American radio needs to help pull itself out of its terminal slump. But unfortunately, at the moment it looks like Costello is becoming Little Richard to Linda Ronstadt's Pat Boone.