When we last left Elvis Costello and the Attractions (About Music, May 24, 1979), the enfant terrible Costello had been nominated for a Grammy for his album, Armed Forces, and generally was regarded as one of the leaders of the New Wave pack.
Almost a year has rolled by, and Costello has faded slightly as the rest of the New Wave – Blondie, Joe Jackson, Talking Heads and the Clash – have taken off in earnest. Costello’s fresh, striking approach to melodic yet driving rock has been assimilated into mainstream rock. Yesterday’s revolution, especially in pop music, becomes today’s “establishment.”
Costello’s newest album, Get Happy!!, bears the sticker, “20 Hits! 20!!” If that boost and the title seem to lean toward strained enthusiasm, there’s a reason for that. If you’ve been waiting for the killer Elvis Costello album (actually he’s already had three) this isn’t it. Get Happy!! does not get happy.
The album, rather, consists of 20 fragment –like songs, a herky-jerky nightmare. Part of the tension in Costello’s songs has been provided by the contrast between his innovative song-writing techniques on the one hand and his strong, accessible melodies on the other. The melodies are still there on Get Happy!! but they seem submerged beneath Costello’s stop-and-go, unpredictable song construction and Nick Lowe’s curiously distant production. On this album, there seems to be a screen between the performance and the final vinyl, and if the producer has any job, it’s to get the music up front.
Also, I might have a better opinion of this album if I could only hear the words. The old fun of singing along with Costello on songs like “Alison,” “Radio, Radio,” “Watching the Detectives” and “Oliver’s Army” is banished from “Get Happy!!”. A lot of these songs are difficult to sing and you wouldn’t want to sing them if you could. Perhaps Costello has given up his ambition of storming AM radio. He isn’t going to do it with this album. Costello’s lucky if he has one hit here, let alone 20.
In any case, the guy remains interesting, and in keeping with this, the title of Get Happy!! seems more ironic than anything else. Costello’s acerbic handling of love’s woes and sorrows, the consistent theme in his writing, still is sometimes balanced on this album by nice musical touches – the delicious bass line and off-the-beat singing in “B Movie,” the harp solo on “I Stand Accused,” the nod to Booker T. and the MGs on “Temptation” and several other songs on the album, the descending melody line that opens “Possession,” the wall-of-sound chorus on “Riot Act.” Some of the touches, though, seem heavy-handed, as with the obnoxious guitar overdub on “Black and White World,” or the overblown into on “Love For Tender”.
Maybe on the 20 songs and 47 minutes, 34 seconds in time which make up this album, Costello is moving ahead as he has before, into previously uncharted pop music waters. The whole concept of “pop” however, depends on the definition of “popular” and the strength of any popular artist rests in the ability to pull the public along.
I don’t think Costello is going to do this on “Get Happy!!” nearly as well as he did with his previous releases. Get Happy!! simply doesn’t feel that good. The music here, if anything, tends to be tired and inconsequential – the last thing in the world I’d expect from Elvis Costello.
ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS: Get Happy!! Columbia JC 36347.