Get Happy!! may be too much of a good thing: With ten songs per side, many of them furiously uptempo and all of them dense with Costello's typically convoluted wordplay, the listener is overwhelmed by a blur of new plot lines, characters, and catchphrases compressed into two- and three-minute works. If the effect is inescapably powerful, it can also be a little disorienting, especially coming in the wake of last year's Armed Forces.
The concise delivery and thematic coherence of that album put the author's misanthropic viewpoint across quickly. Get Happy!! not only covers a wider range of topics and root styles, but also makes pronounced shifts in narrative perspective. One moment Costello is railing against familiar crises (imminent societal collapse, personal alienation, or romantic treachery), the next captures him in an atypically subdued, or even openly confessional, mood.
Such candor makes him seem less like an avenging prophet than like the Everyman sometimes obscured by his rage in the past, and there is some tradeoff in focus. In that sense, Get Happy!! will disappoint some fans, but to these ears the ultimate effect is positive, conferring glimpses, however oblique, of a warmth and humility previously missing from his tortured cityscapes. Even the album's title seems less sarcastic than one would have expected, given his past work.
The Attractions also take a looser tack on their arrangements, although their playing is as charged and economical as before. They pay more direct homage to the models (including Motown, '60s British beat music, country, and folk) they invoked through more stylized means on Armed Forces. Whereas that album's metrical devices and mannered keyboard voicings gave the material a clockwork intricacy and often ethereal atmosphere, the new performances hew to more traditional instrumental timbres, and the rhythm section explores both fluid grooves and more complex time schemes. The music, like Costello's lyrics, poses a more life-sized image.
A week after hearing Get Happy!!, Costello's fourth album, I'm still marshaling my restraint in order to digest its dizzying surfeit of songs. But the best ones here suggest the depth and verve of their feisty author's finest prior tunes. "Love for Tender," "Secondary Modern," "King Horse," and "New Amsterdam" are my favorites so far, but that's just Side 1, and the flip sounds better each day. Too much of a good thing? Sounds impossible, actually.