Harvard Crimson, April 7, 1980

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Abyss and Costello

Elvis Costello and the Attractions / Get Happy!!

D. Bruce Edelstein

Get Happy!! is the most exhilarating album ever to emerge from a universe of gorgons turning each other to stone. The riotous title is either a joke of a threat — imagine Costello's goons clubbing you with those exclamation points. Happiness is a warm gun, remember?

Get Happy!!, known among the cognoscenti as "20 Hits 20," sports 20 songs, and any one of them would redeem any album by any other artist. Elvis Costello is aggressively showing off, sneering "anything you can do, I can do better," and getting away with it because he's right. The scope of the music is vast, expanding an already startling repertoire of styles. Lyrically, Elvis continues to be ambitious and elliptical, outrageous, profound. The themes are familiar: betrayal, emotional imprisonment, greed, loss of feeling...

Elvis has a deeper reservoir of hatred and bitterness than anyone in popular music, or even the Viet Cong, driving him, they say, to compose madly into the night, compressing his rage into song after song, until this: music with a pulse sustained by passion and fear, energy driven by emotion, not (hello Mick Jagger) cocaine. And the tunes deliver. The glory of Get Happy!! is that Elvis has composed 18 fresh, interesting, accessible but not uncomplicated melodies, and has, with true artistry, wedded their substance perfectly to their sound. It may be his best album. Certainly, it surpasses the swampy jingles of Armed Forces, and takes the pop-and-loathing formula of his first two records a step forward.

Get Happy!! doesn't obscure Elvis's problems, though. Sometimes, as on "Love for Tender," he seems like a rock and roll Noel Coward. His lyrics often get tangled in their own trickery, he mixes metaphors, he uses personal pronouns interchangeably and his enunciation is appalling. (I realize that these are symptoms of most rock artists, but Elvis is above all that.) Often it's a major task to determine the subject of a song, and it may take weeks of intense listening to discern any coherence. But the songs deepen with each newly-discovered phrase, and the rewards are great; I wouldn't work that hard for any other contemporary musician.

In Get Happy!!, Elvis Costello pays homage to his American musical influences — soul, blues, much Motown and Stax, as well as reggae. Costello, in Lou Reed's phrase, "wants to be Black." One of the two covers is an old Sam and Dave song, the rousing, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down." Charmingly, it comes out sounding like Graham Parker and the Rumour. Influences being what they are, maybe it was supposed to.

One side of the album is preoccupied with prostitutes, meaning all women, from the cheerily impersonal, pun-riddles "Love For Tender," to the spare, sprightly "Opportunity," with Steve Naive's organ bouncing brightly around the upper register as Elvis sings of the War, the baby boom, no jobs, and women who earned their money by pushing their "bedroom eyes." In "New Amsterdam," Elvis's deprecatory hymn to New York, the waltz time perfectly captures the invisible chains of people "living a life that is almost like suicide."

Suicide runs through Get Happy!!, sometimes surfacing directly, always thumping as an unheard thematic backbeat, life's metaphor for despair. It's the message of "Five Gears in Reverse," shouted inside a garage, sounds like it, in a voice choked with carbon monoxide. Elvis sings:

When your patience is exhausted
And you're going down the slide
You're sitting in the garage contemplating suicide
With the motor racing you can't even catch your breath
While the music celebration's just driving you to...
DEAAAAAATH!

Formerly, Costello had a female antagonist worthy of sparring; "Two Little Hitlers" defined relationships as an unending series of one-upmanships and clashes, a dance of death with each power in turn vowing to return. Here, his sometime partner, presumably aging Playboy centerfold and intercontinental pleasure-kitten Bebe Buell, is merely a "B Movie," "a sob-soap story" devoid of all but carnal interest; this is not two Hitlers, but Hitler and Mussolini. The song climaxes as Elvis taunts her for her shallowness: "You can't feel, you can't feel," his voice echoing in her vacuity, while Bruce Thomas's almost bored bass thrums luridly, watching Elvis pick off ducks in a barrel.

Following Elvis's ballad of betrayal, "Motel Matches," comes one of the album's most thrilling songs, "The Human Touch." Elvis seems trapped in a bizarre reggaed polka, dreadlocks and kielbasa, an "industrial squeeze" that "looks like a luxury, / Feels like a disease." This is Modern Man bombarded by machines, crying for the human touch as he vocally ascends the scale to keep from being swallowed, and succumbs with a heart-rending wail. The song is followed slam-bang by "Beaten To the Punch," in which Elvis races to keep up with the noisy, busy instruments, seizing opportunities before everyone else, and discovering, as he goes under with a shriek, that he has become a prisoner of his choices.

In the first three albums, Elvis didn't let go too much; he was beyond disgust, he claimed, he was only amused, it was safer to sneer than sob. Perhaps sensing his emotional limitations, Elvis recorded "Big Tears" on a single last year, in which he accused his partner of calculated crying, empty tears, while dissolving into sobs himself. It was a pretty good song (though not good enough for inclusion on Armed Forces, undercut by an unexpansive melody and Costello's lack of vocal control). The concept reappears on Get Happy!! in "B Movie," this time with a meaner, more controlled vocal; but the style, the emotion, is successfully rendered in "Riot Act." Hanging on every heavy, condemnatory thump of Pete Thomas's drum as he is led into custody, Elvis makes a last-stand plea on behalf of emotion to a cold, insolent spouse. Elvis climaxes musically by extending the verse just short of the chorus, tension building as he fights to squeeze more and more lines into the measures until he rams against the downbeat and spills over, sobbing, into the refrain (which, incidentally, makes no sense).

No one could look upon Elvis Costello's vision as anything but limited. But few would look for a comprehensive overview in August Strindberg, either. Immature and oversensitive, Elvis dehumanizes to keep from being dehumanized; he gives us nothing less than the genesis of evil. What we have in the music of Elvis Costello is an extraordinarily detailed delineation of the twists and turns of a single tortured, adolescent mind. It's not us, but it's not that far removed; you may feel it next time you masturbate. In "High Fidelity," Elvis gives us, for once, a moral afterthought, a vicious vision of silliness; two people cheating on each other, bugged by each other, hating each other, communicating foggily through the airwaves:

High fidelity
Can you hear me
Can you hear me
Can you hear me

This is the greatness of Elvis Costello — despite the slurred, flat, off-speed, exhausted delivery, we can hear him. The signal is fuzzy; the aim is true.

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Harvard Crimson, April 7, 1980


David Edelstein reviews Get Happy!!.


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