If I'm not mistaken, the aura of infallibility which once surrounded Elvis Costello (from "Detectives" to "Radio, Radio," say), when his talent seemed so enormous, his grasp of the medium so complete, his bitterness so pervasive that it wouldn't let him "go soft," has become a little tarnished in the last year.
Doubts about Armed Forces, doubts about his production job for the Specials, even doubts about his politics — you can see what might have led Elvis to react away from the glossy expansiveness of his last record (which I actually think was underrated, though I saw the cracks too), though cynics might say that the feel of Get Happy! has just as much to do with the latest outbreak of Sixties chic.
There's a traditional Sixties cover, which I don't like any more than the inner sleeve and the useless poster, and a comment from Nick Lowe (producing again) on the album's containing 20 tracks which reassures "'hi-fi enthusiasts and people who have never bought a record made before 1967" that no loss of sound-quality results. It's as if the Sixties have again become an incomparable golden age, and those who remember it are one-up on the rest of us, a notion which plagued the early Seventies and which I hoped punk had dispelled.
There's a further typically Stiff-derived gimmick in the fact that side one on the label is side two on the sleeve and vice versa, but Elvis undoubtedly must have had artistic (as well as promotional) reasons for this shift in focus — he's astute (and contemporary) enough to know that, when in doubt, a course in three-minute basics is probably a good idea. At 47-odd minutes the album is long, but not extraordinarily so, which means the ten songs on each side have to rattle through like a fusillade, only one passing the three-minute mark and five not even making two minutes. Each song, then, has to state its case succinctly, and it's a credit to Costello's ability to condense his ideas that you never feel a piece should have had more room to develop. Indeed, "Riot Act," that one three-minute shot, seems if anything too long and portentous as it plays out one side.
That side is definitely the weaker of the two, maybe because of too limited a reference to the Sixties styles the record draws on throughout, which range from Stax soul to pop from closer to home. Costello's music has always (if less so on Armed Forces) been rooted in long-established traditions governing structure, tone and even melodic direction, relying on his personality and acerbic lyrics to vivify and update them, but on Get Happy!! he's both let his natural roots grow into view and deliberately unearthed a few more, as if the idea of "getting happy" is statistically related in his mind to Sixties modes.
Thus the sound eschews sophistication, and Steve Naive's organ assumes the most dated tone possible — much of the time it reminds me less of the respected Stax names than of one of those dreadful Swinging London films. That's no slight on Naive's ability, since many of his keyboard contributions are excellent, but that organ sound is surely one of the most artificial pop has ever spawned, and as it candy-flosses its way around the songs, it annoys as often as it gives "period charm."
"5ive Gears In Reverse" takes this approach furthest, really accurate in its recreation of garage bluster, even down to a ludicrously tacky guitar solo, but it's too specifically archaic for my taste. Of the two non-originals, the single grows on you eventually but "I Stand Accused" hasn't on me yet. There's an inevitable nod to ska and the Specials in "Human Touch," but it somehow sounds as trivial as "Black And White World" does unattractive, while "Love For Tender" is merely clever-clever money / love wordplay (as in the title) set to an awkward rhythm.
Elvis certainly retains his fondness for playing with puns and manipulating common phrases, which helps to give him his acute sense of the sound of a line, though its overall effect can be brittle, making you wonder if he really cares as much about the substance as the style. There are a couple of weak plays on words — there's "You lack lust / You're so lacklustre" from "Possession," but then that song's made by some great lines later on: "My case is closed, my case is packed / I'll get out before the violence / All the tears of a silence."
The sharp lines outnumber the blunt — there's a pin-up girl who's "framed and hung-up" — but even so I'm often unsure of what he's getting at, and I'm not helped by the necessary brevity of these statements. Certainly, (with one exception) the songs don't seem to me to be any more "personal" than is usual with Elvis, except as they illuminate him via his eternal preoccupations with love as jealousy, hate and betrayal, and with life as a kind of sordid Hollywood B-picture.
There's actually a song here called "B-Movie," that abuses a lover with the words "B-movie, that's all you're to me," and it's the finest piece bar one on the weaker side — the part of the chorus where he reduces a relationship into "I can't stand it when it goes from reel to reel / I can't stand it when it's got no punchline you can feel" is magical. It's surpassed on that side only by "Motel Matches," a classic piece of Costelloid neon melodrama, on which his vocal is superb and the moment when the music falls away beneath the chorus-line "Boys everywhere ..." is one of the best on the album.
But for sheer consistent quality you should turn to the eight songs in the middle of the other side, which really make the whole record. Three stand up tallest. "Secondary Modern" sees Elvis' voice shedding its habitual bite for a gentleness he's maybe avoided since "Alison" because of that "new wave balladeer" tag — the way he croons (yes, croons) "Your body makes me sad like you / Now my whole world goes from blue to blue" is delightful. "King Horse" is so immediately and expansively attractive, largely because of the piano, that it might be the next single. It's trademarked Costello from the start ("Cheap cut satin and bad perfume"), and look at the resonance he gets from wordplay in "Still, she knows the kind of tip she is gonna get / A lot of loose exchanges, precious little respect." And then there's "New Amsterdam," a faultless folk waltz which seems the only obviously personal piece here, as he lays into America at the same time as musing: "Back in London ... Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile." On all three of these (just to balance things), Naive's keyboards are outstanding.
Twenty-track avalanches are difficult to absorb —tracks that first seemed weak have now come up smiling, and others may follow. There are certainly better things for an artist of Elvis Costello's ability to be doing than looking back, but Get Happy!! will do fine for the moment.