So rock 'n' roll's most embittered cynic is supposed to have gotten happy. I'm afraid it's a line I can't possibly buy on the evidence in the actual grooves.
In fact the title is both ironic and not. In terms of the stance, the ideas, the point of view in the lyrics, there is little change in Elvis Costello. An alternative title might have been that coined by the J. Geils band for their latest opus Love Stinks; in Get Happy, (consider this) Elvis leads us through a series of skirmishes on the bedroom floor, in and out of hotel rooms and, it seems, across America.
The songs are largely autobiographical, as Costello fiercely analyses, denounces and admits his own guilt, in relationships which inevitably prove more problematic than sustaining. The impression gleaned is of a man who finds sex hard to avoid but for whom it provides cold comfort in the harsh light of day.
There are suggestions of violence which are disturbing — not in that they necessarily reflect on Elvis Costello personally but in what they imply about human relationships generally. With a few exceptions, more of which shortly, this album is an extended battle of the sexes, with woman too often cast tn the traditional role of temptress. Both these elements crop up together in "Beaten to the Punch," a song that's hardly intended to inspire either complacency or contentment, "Your body speaks louder than your voice," Elvis accuses, "You let it do the talking so I don't have any choice." The point, however, is that he's had enough — a feeling which he states in absolutely unequivocal terms: "You'd better get out now / Cos you'll never go the distance."
The tension which runs through the album seems to relate to a lover in the States and another at "home" in England: each is identified with their respective places of abode. On "Human Touch," Elvis makes his preferences abundantly clear. Over a pointed ska beat — it's what's happening in England after all — he refers to America: "I know I just gotta get out of this place / I just can't stand any more of that mechanical craze / though you say it's only an industrial squeeze / It looks like luxury — it feels like a disease."
And the message is that he needs something other than mechanical sex when he pleads — soulfully — "I need / I need / I need / Your human touch." The juxtaposition of that against the preceding "Motel Matches" underlines the point, when in the latter he'd equated matches of the love variety on the road with those given out free in motels. Ephemeral isn't the word.
The implications of the placement of "Clowntime is Over," "New Amsterdam" ("has become much too much for me") and "High Fidelity" (it's about love, not hardware) at the end of the second side can't be escaped either — but it'd be a mistake to push the notion that Costello has suddenly reversed his attitudes utterly. The Truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. A line in "Riot Act" says it exactly: "Forever doesn't mean forever any more." And it really doesn't.
But what Elvis Costello does here is to blow sky high the myths propagated by the bands of the Eternal Boogie, who celebrate the "chicks" and the "groupies" they use and abuse along the way.
Otherwise it's a more personal album than either This Year's Model or Armed Forces, both less abstract and analytical — and more forceful and soulful as a result.
Which is where the "happy" comes in, some of the time at least, because this is Elvis' most danceable set yet. Musically, he's decided to explore the possibilities suggested by the soul music of the late '60's, so that most of Get Happy is more than adequately designed to set the feet tapping.
On this count I'm not entirely happy with the production, which seems to lack an edge of crispness here and there, though Nick Lowe has undoubtedly gone for the authentic effect. Nor does anything quite attain the indescribable magic of an Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett or classic Motown track: there's no brass, no strings and few back-up voices, all of which count for a lot in the originals.
But Get Happy is still musically excellent, without a real disappointment among the twenty dense cuts. And some are amazing: automatically I'd nominate some slow ones on which Elvis sings with an emotion that's almost intimidating — "Riot Act," "Motel Matches," "Secondary Modern" and the more sprightly "New Amsterdam" (which is breathtaking), "King Horse" and "High Fidelity." "Human Touch," incidentally, shows the door to any other ska contenders I've yet heard.
It'd be useless and misleading to pretend to having fully assimilated the music on Get Happy, even after a week of solid playing, Apart from the fact that Costello is among the most intellectual of pop writers, meaning that he has a penetrating grasp of ideas, a superb command of language and an abundantly fertile imagination among other things, the fact is that there are twenty songs here, and that, even now, new ones are insinuating their way into the subconscious.
And it's when it's taken as a whole, that the full achievement of Get Happy becomes clear.
Just don't expect to get happy all the time.