Elvis Costello may not be the Ultimate Rock Star, but he's damn close. In only two and a half years, he's turned out four albums chock full of intelligent catchy tunes, plus (at last count) a dozen or so additional songs on flip sides of singles and import albums. Last year's Armed Forces won over many of those who weren't yet believers, and his latest Get Happy!! should get the rest.
As has been the case with each of his albums, Get Happy!! strikes a fine balance between continuing the sound established on previous releases and exploring new territory. The overall pace and sound of this album doesn't differ too much from Costello's earlier work, but there are some very noticeable differences in the instrumental mix. Nick Lowe is still producing Elvis, but he's changed his tactics a bit here. In particular, the slashing Costello guitar is almost absent, buried beneath layers of drums, organ crescendos and — most of all — bass guitar.
This gives the album a very solid feel, reminiscent in many ways of Lowe's production on his own albums. On the other hand, Elvis is a rather good guitarist and the loss of his instrumental talents are felt at several points. This production style is not at all unexpected, and in fact follows naturally from the pattern established by Lowe on Costello's three previous albums.
The most noticeable aspect of Get Happy!! (and one which is being vigorously promoted in a late-night Columbia TV ad) is the quantity of songs — 20 in all. Most are under 2:30 with the result that many are closer to musical ideas than true songs. However, Elvis' talent for cramming more into two minutes than most people can into five prevents this from being a serious limitation.
Elvis may write catchy pop melodies, but it is for his lyrics that he has been most noted. On Armed Forces, there were times when his attempts to be clever seemed to go a bit too far, but the lyrics on Get Happy!! reverse this trend and tend more toward those on This Year's Model. As in the past, most of the songs feature Elvis' bittersweet views on male/ female relationships. Those who think that he spends too much time on femme fatale stories should be pleased by his inclusion of the old standard "I Stand Accused." Yet, there are still lots of lines like "You find a girl / You'll promise her anything / Even a wedding ring..." and "If I say I love you, then I must be delirious."
Of course, no writer is perfect, and there are a few weak spots in the lyrical flow of the album. For example, Elvis spits out the killer line, "You lack lust / You're so lacklustre / Is that all the strength / You can muster?" and follows it with a chorus consisting simply of the title "possession" repeated three times. Such minor complaints really don't mean very much in the context of an album packed with top-flight lyrics.
It may take a few listens to sink in, but Get Happy!! is in nearly all respects a superb album. The first single, "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," is one of his best, and is getting a good deal of airplay. Elvis Costello may not look like a strong candidate for rock star of the decade, but then again neither did Buddy Holly or Bob Dylan. It may be trite, but it's still true: Elvis is King.