This is one for the scholars. Costello, like a Donald Fagen in horn rims, has a fondness for batting out odd and impenetrable lyrics. Mix his postnasal drip of a voice with Nick Lowe's rolling thunder production and you wind up with an exceedingly cryptic album.
For five days I tried everything — donned the headphones, pressed my ear to the speaker — but could come up with a verbatim transcript of only one verse and chorus: "I've seen the bottom of a lot of dresses... But it never seen love so near... He'd seen love get so expensive... But it never seen love so dear... Now I know that you're all King Horse... Ripped with tenderness and brute force." The key, at least I think, is in the personal pronouns.
Oh, I deciphered a few other words and phrases along the way — funeral director, rigamarole, suicide (natch), you lack lust, you're so lackluster. Compelling images keep popping out of the reverb and echo. But EC isn't going to give it all away with a lyric sheet.
Elvis Costello has marched to the front of the British New Wave movement on the basis of three excellent albums. Get Happy!! is a followup that defies instant analysis. The mystery begins with the title. Get happy? If anything, this album expands on Costello's snarly bitchiness toward women. "Love for Tender" (as in legal tender), "Black and White World," "Motel Matches" (mo-tel 1. The place where one has an affair) — this hardly sounds like a born-again cheer-monger.
But if you judge Get Happy!! as a reaction to the blossoming of New Wave as a dance form, then the title becomes quite appropriate. Twenty songs, ranging in length from 1:56 to 3:36, roar off this single disc. Crank up the volume, swing your partner, and keep those feet moving. There's hardly time to catch your breath!
On the liner notes, Nick Lowe maintains that cramming 20 tunes on the LP did not cause a loss of high-fidelity. Maybe not, but it caused a loss of vibrant melody. Only "King Horse" stands out as an immediate Costello classic, swaying and soaring until it bear hugs you in its hypnotic grip. That song is sandwiched between the few others that are quick grabbers — "Secondary Motion," "Possession," "Man Called Uncle" and "Clowntime Is Over." Still, I can't say this album is rife with filler• Everything lunges at you so fast that by the time it's over you're punch drunk from the storm of sound.
Major credit there must go to Lowe, arguably the finest rock producer working today. Lowe has taken Costello's three-piece band, the Attractions, and intensified its sound with layers of gushing embellishment — all with a few turns of the knob, not additional instrumentation. This album drives hard; harder, in fact, than anything you're likely to encounter this year. So if you want to put on your dancing shoes and get happy, you'll have a tough time keeping still.
Dancing, schmancing. EC fans want to study the songs, sit at the feet of the master — absorb his venomous statements on life and love, sex and society. There's plenty to study on Get Happy!! Leave a few weeks open on your schedule.