Elvis Costello has a reputation for doing outrageous things. Some of those things are outrageously good and some are just outrageous.
Right in there somewhere is his new album called Get Happy!! (Columbia).
The two exclamation points are important. It is reminiscent of old record collections with titles like "Dance Party!!"
They were usually little boxes of 45s. The punctuation was a surefire indication of what great fun they would provide for Biff and all the gang.
The first outrageous thing you notice about this new album is that it has 10 songs on each side.
That is the way albums used to be manufactured back in medieval times. In recent years, public-spirited record companies have cut down on the number of songs on each album because they wanted to improve sound quality.
(If you believe that, they have some costume jewelry they would like to show you.)
The second outrageous thing — which may or may not be intentional — is that the songs that the jacket says are on Side One are actually on Side Two and vice versa.
It is a tribute to Costello's unique style that several songs go by before you notice this fact.
Third, and less surprising, given Costello's past repertoire, is that just about every song on Get Happy!! is about some hopeless failure at love which has our hero contemplating at least homicide or suicide, whichever comes first.
The title then is a dark joke. So is the album design, with the '50s red and blue allusion to 3-D. Because, as usual, Elvis's style is 1-D.
So much so that when you hear another stylist like, say, Linda Ronstadt do Elvis Costello songs, you are surprised at how good some of them can be.
In addition to the familiar angry, raging vocals of Costello, the songs are backed by the raw rock of his band, the Attractions. Frankly, at times the band sounds like someone dropping a tray of dishes.
Only a few of the 20 songs are significantly distinctive to draw attention to themselves.
"Motel Matches" is memorable chiefly for the cleverness of the lyrics, which refer to little signs that expose personal feelings "giving you away like motel matches."
"New Amsterdam" evokes a kind of crushing sadness of a "life that is almost like suicide." More wistful and sad are "Secondary Modern" and "Clowntime Is Over."
But most of the songs are mercifully short Jabs, frequently ending abruptly with an emotional thud.
Although Costello is known for strong imagery, there is no lyric sheet to guide you through this time. Only temporarily does that obscure just how thin and repetitive the content is.
Elvis Costello may still be an important force in popular music. That doesn't mean what he does has to be particularly likeable.