In his fourth album, Get Happy, Elvis Costello does not stray from the formula that has served him so well on his previous outings. Yet, while no new ground has been broken here, Costello fans will be immensely pleased. Sales figures (the album currently ranks fifth on Billboard's Top 100) indicate that the initial base of Costello fans, built by the magnificent My Aim is True, has expanded significantly.
The intentionally ironic title, Get Happy, may have been more accurately replaced by Get Depressed. Costello is an angry, bitter man, and this work is highly expressive of the pain he so obviously feels. His vocals, becoming hoarse at points, sound tortured. A recurring theme is the pain caused by frustrated loves. In "B Movie," he sings "I don't want some fool asking me why / When I find you're finally making me cry." Ever the doomsday prophet, Costello views the anguish as inevitable.
Get Happy features twenty songs, a pleasant departure from recent trends in the music industry. Each track is fairly short; the longest is only four minutes. The songs, like Costello's anger, come in quick frenetic bursts which Costello seems unwilling to prolong. Together, they form a series of fascinating and revealing vignettes, a structural technique that works very effectively.
Nick Lowe, Costello's producer on each of the previous albums, has once again done a superb job. The production on this album is clean and tight. Lowe and Costello choose to place a heavy emphasis on the rhythm section, which is composed primarily of the drums and organ (an unusual touch). The drumming, which is excellent, is syncopated and variable. There is a noticeable absence of leads; while Costello seems unable to control his emotions, the music does remain disciplined and serves as a stable counterpoint to the lyrics.
On Get Happy, Costello once again lives up to his reputation as one of the finest and most inventive lyricists in music today. Costello has a wonderful ability to use words and phrases which are rich with multiple meanings. In "Love For Tender," Costello metaphorically reduces love to series of financial relationships, singing, "The wages of sin are an expensive affection / They'll leave you bankrupt / Better pay up quick, don't interrupt / I'm so in love, I'm so sincere / Just like a well-known financier / You know I've never been corrupt." Costello's lyrics are such a pleasure that the absence of lyric sheets is a real disappointment.
As an artist, Costello concerns himself less with entertainment than with self-expression. There is much more at stake in his music than commercial success; the album becomes a vitally important cathartic experience. The listener is granted an opportunity to enter Costello's world a while to watch as he bares his doubts, fears, and anxieties. The experience is fascinating and sometimes disturbing. Ultimately, the album is not the depressant it might be. Despite his own inclinations to the contrary, Costello has not given up. As he indicates in "Riot Act," a brooding and powerful love song, things may yet work out.