Like the Clash's explosive London Calling, Elvis Costello's new Get Happy!! album is a vibrant work by someone who both understands rock 'n' roll's history and aggressively seeks to shape its future.
The albums, both of which are featured in this month's Disc Derby, are the results of creative outbursts that found Costello and the Clash pushing far past the normal 8-to-10-song album format.
Where the Clash, which headlines the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Monday and Tuesday nights, gave us 19 songs in a two-record set, Costello offers 20 tunes on a single disc.
Not as powerfully framed as last year's Armed Forces, the new Costello album still bristles with the independence that has characterized the British rocker's brief but provocative career.
The Clash's London Calling (Epic Records) — Don't mistake the brevity of this mention for waning enthusiasm. Unlike the Costello album, which is being discussed here for the first time, London Calling was reviewed at length a few weeks ago in Calendar. The album's strong commercial showing, however, makes it appropriate for today's Disc Derby consideration. Angry, reflective, funny, the hallmark album brings of age brilliantly the punk-inspired new-wave movement in England. And don't miss 'em live.
Elvis Costello's Get Happy!! (Columbia Records) — Notice the two exclamation points in the title? That's part of the fun Costello and producer Nick Lowe had with the album packaging. Just as the cover of London Calling was patterned after an early rock model, this cover, too, suggests a more innocent time in rock. You can feel it in the garish color combination, the note to fans that starts with "Hi!" and the intentional mislabeling of the songs so that the tunes listed on Side 1 of the album cover are actually on Side 2 of the record.
Why the tomfoolery? After the Top 10 success of Armed Forces, most rock stars, no matter how challenging initially, would have moved closer to the pop establishment by softening their sound and making other commercial compromises. Instead, Costello has thumbed his nose at that establishment in this album. By including 20 tunes in the LP, he also demonstrated his disregard for critics and businessmen.
The safest thing for someone nervous about critics would have been to take the 10 best songs and polish the arrangements up a bit. Several of the arrangements here feel unfinished, almost like simple sketches in an artist's notebook, and some songs are sub-par. The wise thing from a monetary standpoint was to put the 20 songs in a two-record set so that you could have charged more for the album.
Ignoring both strategies, Costello followed the path utilized in a less self-conscious era in rock. It's probably the way he remembers listening to his favorite records. The opening track, an old Sam and Dave flipside called "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," is reminiscent of the Memphis rhythm & blues that Costello no doubt enjoyed as a teenager. ("Motel Matches," Costello's own song, documents his country music roots on the album.)
"Stand Up ..." is one of two songs on Get Happy!! that Costello didn't write. The other, "I Stand Accused," is also R&B-flavored, but it's not the old Jerry Butler hit. This tune, a rousing piece of romantic melodrama filled with teasing courtroom references, was written by Tony Colton and Ray Smith.
Like the album title, the music's vitality is akin to the records played during the party scene in the Quadrophenia film, but don't let the playfulness fool you. Costello still dissects human relationships with more fury (and, often, more insight) than anyone in rock since Bob Dylan.
The song titles hint at the jarring encounters described in the album: "Beaten to the Punch," "Temptation," "Possession," "Clowntime Is Over," "High Fidelity." As always, the images are memorable and fresh: someone's actions giving away intent as sure as a pair of carelessly placed motel matches.
It'll take time to determine if this free-form approach to record making is as satisfying artistically as the more carefully edited Armed Forces, but most fans will simply be too grateful for the 20 songs to think about the album in such critical terms.