"How good is the remainder of Armed Forces ... I just don't know yet. ... Costello's albums not only bear up to, but demand, repeated playings before the songs begin making an impression." — Marc Zakem, Jan. 28, 1979.
A wise hedging on that one. By the end of last year, Armed Forces was all but forgotten by many otherwise-fans of Elvis Costello. Although the album eventually cracked the Top 10, one must attribute its success to a number of factors including a heavy publicity push, the previous air play of "Radio Radio" from 1978's This Year's Model album and the fact that the music was sttfl above most popular standards, if not Costello's own.
Still, upon repeated playings, no sort of revelationary impact that accompanied the first two albums ever developed. The songs that should have been kicking out the jams "(What's so funny about) Peace, Love and Understanding" in particular never quite did, and additional numbers, many quite political, remained too contrived and too complicated for enjoyable listening.
Toss in some racist remarks and a fight with Bonnie Bramlett in Columbus and a disappointing concert tour, and Costello found himself in a position where not even his excellent first two records were that exciting and eventful to listen to.
No one knew which would be worse: The fact that his fourth album could be just plain bad, or the possibility that no one would care one way or the other. Well, number four is out, and it would first appear that Costello is trying to make amends. Entitled Get Happy, the new album retreats from the political climate in favor of a dance album more similar in approach to the first two.
And the big news, of course, is that there are 20 songs on this single record, lending to the notion that Costello wants to give us our money's worth and that, in the words of Dictators' guitarist Ross the Boss, "quantity is quality."
In reality, it's doubtful whether Costello gives a hoot what the record-buying public especially the American record-buying public thinks of him or his albums. Costello has always wanted success on his own terms, but here it appears that he actually enjoys the rather masochistic and sadistic tactic of seeing just how much his audience will put up with before splitting altogether.
Consider "B Movie," a number which recounts American press coverage of the Bonnie Bramlett incident, without ever giving the slightest hint of apology (a stunt he also used in a New York press conference following tie altercation): "They thought they'd make me spit out the truth, they thought they'd find you lying about your youth" (a reference to his membership in Rock Against Racism).
Calling the whole incident a "sob-soap" story, Costello condemns the media and rock press for not being able to stand it when a rock hero turns out to have feet of clay: "You can't stand it when I'm the punch line you can feel."
The song combines self-pity with the idea that no one else had even better think of pitying Costello. It is a theme repeated throughout the album, which, like My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, contains a large number of love (hate) songs.
The difference is that many of the songs here don't have a focus for Costello's bitterness other than himself. We do have some Allisons scattered about but mostly Costello sings here of his actions, as opposed to reactions to other lovers' thoughtless deeds.
The trouble, Costello finally confesses, might be with him. At one point he sings, "Five gears in reverse / Feels like I don't know what I'm doin' / Another fashionable first / I'm parking down the road to ruin."
And on his version of "I Stand Accused," he sings: "I stand accused / People say I love you / I stand accused / But what can I do? / You belong to some other guy / Hope I never have to testify / If loving you is a big crime / I've been guilty for a long time."
Still, despite the slight change in attitude, the over-all tone is getting old fast. No matter who the focus of attention is on "King Horse" Costello tells a typical story, but of two other people. We have heard it all before.
It's good that Costello can shoulder some of the blame, but it would be better if he could sing about something else altogether. He seems to be getting to be a bit like, of all people, Harry Chapin.
Chapin once did some good story-songs, and now he has become trapped in that genre. Costello began by singing bitterly of boy-girl relationships, and now that's all he seems to do. He also seems to be in many ways similar to, of all people, Elton John.
Like John, he is largely a synthetic rock star — few know exactly what he is like behind the thick glasses and baggy blazer. He is also an excellent pop technician, as is John, someone who can turn out a batch of good-sounding songs, even without totally feeling them.
For if the songs on Get Happy sound a bit perfunctory to listeners, they must seem the same way to Costello.
Here, he already knows the point he's going to make, and simply looks for the cleverest puns and metaphors with which to make it: "She knows what kind of tips she's going to get, a lot of loose exchanges," "Falling out of your pocket book, giving you away like motel matches / I struck it lucky with motel matches."
It's good writing, and for anyone but Costello, it would be inspired. On Get Happy, though, it's merely competent, and no longer fresh.
Following the theory that each previous album has musically represented a decade, beginning with the '50s, then Get Happy is Costello's '80s album. As such, it reflects, whether intentionally or not, some of the early trends of this year — a pop sound without enough feeling, and a holding pattern for many New Wave artists, waiting to plot their next moves.
Get Happy has a little more feeling and a slightly clearer sense of purpose, but that's about it When you're done dancing, you must still face the album's implied question, "Is everybody happy?"
No, not really. Not completely.