Elvis Costello is not a happy man!
Since his American debut in 1978 with My Aim Is True, Costello has wallowed in a pool of musical paranoia, crafting some of the finest pop epics to almost single-handedly resusitate a directionless U.S. music industry. One would think that having three highly acclaimed albums to his credit and gaining recognition as one of most innovative contemporary songwriters in the business would make Costello at least somewhat content with his life. But on his fourth album for Columbia Records, he proves that angry young men don't mellow and grow older, they merely become more vehement.
Listening to this LP is at first difficult; assimilating it is almost impossible. Get Happy!! is a bizarre, chaotic montage of 20 almost inacessible melodies which reveal Costello waging war with himself, his lover(s), and the world.
Although no mention of the "Ray Charles incident," in which Costello made several racial slurs about the blind musician is directly evident on Get Happy, much of the album's tensions seem to stem from it. Just as Harry Nilsson and John Lennon assured the world that they were at least partially sane by releasing Pussy Cats (after dancing with Kotex on their heads at the Troubador in L.A.), Costello attempts to make light of his hostile eccentricities with the paradoxical title of this record.
Almost everything about Get Happy!! is a paradox, reversal, or apparent opposite. On "Black and White World" and "Human Touch," Costello is realistic about his romanticisms; on "The Imposter" and "Motel Matches," he is romantic about his realisms. (Figure that one out!) Even the song sequence as it appears on the album jacket ends up being the opposite on the record's inner label.
Kicking off side one (or side two, depending on your point of view) is an energetic remake of Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand up for Falling Down," which sounds like a Motown classic gone beserk. "Five Gears in Reverse" sets the theme and tone of Get Happy!! with Costello painfully screaming about "walking down the road to ruin," which he does for the rest of the record.
Costello and producer Nick Lowe have incorporated the lyrical mayhem of Get Happy!! into the music by creating an incoherent void beneath a tightly structured framework and burying Elvis' strained vocals into the barrage of sound. Although all the songs on this LP feature Steve Naive's kaleidoscopic organ and an uptempo rock beat, on "Beaten to the Punch," "Riot Act" and the remainder of side one, the wall of sound crashes in on Costello and company, leaving them hopelessly lost in a world of pop frustration.
The anguish, ambiguity and insanity continue on side two. "I'm in a foxhole, I'm down in a trench / I'd like to stand, but I just can't stand the stench." In "Opportunity" Costello starts to deal with his plight, searches for an answer, but can't find one. In fact, he can't come to terms with himself or find release in any song, and the album ends right where it began, leaving him alone, searching for his niche in the world.
Get Happy!! is not a downer. If you can listen to the record long enough and absorb all the paranoid imagery, endless word games, and seductive obsessions, you'll eventually learn to love Get Happy!! Although it may not be Elvis Costello's best LP, it is in many aspects his most American record. Being an Elvis Costello album, it's great just by definition alone.