Just when you thought there were no genuine bargains left. along comes Elvis Costello with the album buy of the year.
For a mere $7 — give or take half a buck, depending on your patience for comparison shopping — the computer programmer turned rock star delivers 20 — count 'em —20 brand new songs on Get Happy!! (Columbia), his latest and most ambitious release.
In an age when established headliners disappear into the recording studio for months and wrestle the muse to produce eight or nine cuts of fresh material. Costello's achievement is startling, the more so because he has come up with an outstanding real long player — an inventive work on which creativity does not flag through almost a full hour.
The longest song — "Riot Act" — clocks in a three minutes, 36 seconds. "Beaten to the Punch" is the shortest at 1:47. Everything falls neatly into the short, punchy format that was the staple of rock 'n' roll when the music first took hold back in the '50s.
Costello and his new wave colleagues have pioneered a back-to-the-basics movement in pop, and Happy stands as the supreme example of the new wavers' total rejection of flourish and floss.
Backed up by the simple (but hardly simplistic) instrumentation of the Attractions, Costello whips his way through each tiny masterpiece. Nothing in the way of extended solo passages or studio gimmickry is permitted to shift focus from the singer and his songs.
Once again, Nick Lowe has handled production chores, and his understated approach works as well here as it did on last year's Armed Forces. Drums, bass and keyboards are crystal-clear in the mix and propel the melodies along without getting in the way. Almost everything is up-tempo, with the bass doubling the drum line and both supplying the backbeat that is the heart and soul of elemental rock.
The revival of a traditional format is, however, merely the surface aspect of Costello*s music. His choice of a stripped-down style — in which everything happens within a tightly-constructed, toe-tapping three minutes — would be a cute affectation were it not for his ability to pack a unified word drama into each Top-40 style ditty.
Hardly the greatest pop singer around (and wise enough to work within his vocal limitations), Costello makes his songs work because he is an outstanding lyricist who can come up with 20 equally-clever aspects of his jaded world view.
There is nothing startlingly original about alienation as subject matter — almost everyone is singing the contemporary blues these days — but Costello's is a uniquely misanthropic perception, and one that rings true through acutely-drawn images of empty ambition ("Opportunity"); futile, barroom romance ("Motel Matches"); and love for sale ("King Horse").
While his late namesake broke the hearts of a generation with a plea to "Love Me Tender," Costello's romanticism is tempered by its conflict with a cold, unromantic world. His reaction is an ironic sensibility that strips away artifice and veneer to expose the heart — or lack of same — of the subject matter.
Giving vent to a poison pen within a jam-packed, listenable album is the latest accomplishment in a recording career that has — in a little over two years — established Costello as the most prolific and profound of contemporary singer-songwriters.
There are few, if any, performers around who have as much to say; and none who are saying it as consistently and effectively.