If Bruce Springsteen is rock's greatest storyteller, then Elvis Costello is most certainly its greatest kibitzer. On all his records this man has been alternately disillusioned and hopeful, angry and resigned, off-handed complimentary and an outright critic, and, for my money at least, the most vital songwriter in rock music today.
It's awesome to think of the level of maturity reached with Get Happy!!, only the fourth album by Costello and his band, The Attractions. On Get Happy!! Costello further plays with metaphors, perhaps more deftly than on his prior outings, slipping his messages through neatly and seductively, yet hitting the listener squarely between the eyes (ears?) so as not to allow one brief moment of respite from his badgering visions.
But: packaging first. Costello's albums have been notoriously outlandish and confusing; Get Happy!! is no exception. In fact, if the record-buying public bought solely on package attractiveness, Costello's records would surely be in the cutout bins by now. Get Happy's garish mix-up of orange, lavender, and green initially made me want to leave it in the record store's bag. I'm almost disappointed it doesn't glow in the dark (musically, maybe. Visually, nah). But once out of the bag there are interesting tidbits to be found: 20 tracks, 10 per side, most around the two-and-a-half minute mark. The packaging is pure early 60's sparseness. And Elvis reverses the order of songs from jacket to wax, so that side one on the jacket ends up as side two on the record, and vice versa. Cute, huh?
Long-time producer Nick Lowe's liner note convinces us that Get Happy!! does not suffer from "groove cramming" and a resultant loss of sound quality. This is true, although the album's mix does succumb to a rivalry between Elvis' vocals and the level of his band playing. "Five Gears In Reverse" and "Beaten To The Punch" are mix nightmares, wherein The Attractions nearly overpower Costello's lyrics, which are never than easy to decipher anyway.
Get Happy!! is, for the most part, a revival of the joyous jump music of the '50's and '60's, a reverent nod to the Stax-Motown era (in Elvis' covers of "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and "I Stand Accused"), and I almost suspect if this album isn't in some way a belated apology for Elvis' barroom quip "Ray Charles is a blind, ignorant nigger" made in early 1979 (whereupon singer Bonnie Bramlett knocked both his glasses and his pride to the floor). Elvis hints at gospel on "Motel Matches" and "Secondary Modern" (which practically yearn for a black female backup) and at R & B in "Temptation" and "B Movie." And throughout I hear the '60's fun schlock that made tunes like the Grass Roots' "Midnight Confession" such classics.
But it is only through his use of metaphor that Costello gets away with such revival in this age of New Wave. "Love For Tender" finds Elvis squealing "I pay you a compliment / and you think I am innocent / You can total up the balance sheet / and never know if I'm a counterFEET!" He compares love to such an ordinary, dispensable item as "Motel Matches": "fallin' out of your open pocketbook / givin' you away like motel matches."
Costello's songs have always taken a dim view of women and relationships, partly because he takes both for granted and won't expend energy, to build or maintain affection. His relationships seem to fall into his lap, and its arguable whether or not Elvis admires or resents this. On This Year's Model he growled "I don't want to be your lover / I just want to be your victim!" Throughout Get Happy!! Costello remains aloof, cautious, and biting: "I could almost swear / I could promise that I'd always be true to you / But we may not live to be so old" and, further on, "I'm fickle in the face of your affection" ("Man Called Uncle"). Love is akin to battle in "Opportunity": "I'm in a foxhole / I'm down in the trench / I'd be a hero but I can't stand the stench". He is a "victim of circumstance" in "I Stand Accused." By his subtlety, Elvis is a more effective misogynist than The Knack's Doug Fieger. And, yet, for all his indecisiveness, Costello is sure of one thing: He's just as good as (or better than) any other guy after his woman. "The Imposter," perhaps the only song on Get Happy!! that isn't long enough, is in this Graham Parkerish "you-don't-want-him-you-really-want-me" mold.
Though Elvis' three previous albums found a wide British audience where the allusions to England's political turmoil were understood, Get Happy!! may be more accessible to U.S. listeners because it is relatively apolitical. Costello has quit bitching about Churchill, South Africa, the BBC, and the low-life working class, and has moved on from wallowing in his "nobody's paying any attention to me" self-pity. After all, The Clash is giving us that now. What keeps Elvis Costello and Get Happy!! attractive is not so much Elvis' insights, which are important enough, as the music which is their backdrop. Costello is most skilled when lightheartedly passing off such profundity as "everybody's hiding under covers / Who's making Lover's Lane safe again for lovers?" while the organ chirps up roller rink riffs in "Clowntime Is Over." On first listen, it seems as if the sugary '60's pop treatment (complete with tambourines and whooshes of piano and Farfisa ) undermines the lyrics when, in fact, it enhances Costello's contrariness.
A recent review of Get Happy!! in New York's Village Voice criticized Costello for "cooling out," suggesting that the meanest guy in rock "doesn't bite, doesn't sneer." Though he may have lost his apoliticalness on this album, he admits, after a machine gun guitar intro on "King Horse," that he is caught "between tenderness and brute force". This is mellowing? From the `60's production and packaging, right down to the double exclamation marks of the album's title, Get Happy!! proves that Costello is merely feeling his oats.