A monstrously intricate set of miniature epics about political violence and commitment, fascism and fashion, dialectics and ambiguity, Elvis Costello's Armed Forces (1979) was still a gorgeously seductive piece of high-style pop. Now Costello has made a record about that most accessible of pop subjects. Love with a capital L, and in many ways it's his most involuted and elusive LP yet. With twenty – count em, twenty – tunes on a single disc, Get Happy!! is as claustrophobic as the interior of a sleepless mind. It's so private that you don't listen to the songs so much as eavesdrop on them. But if the new album is hard to get into, it's also difficult to ignore. Just when you think it's faded safely away, it comes back to nag at you more intractably than ever.
After a declaration of independence on My Aim Is True, after the fierce usurper's grab for the rock & roll throne on This Year's Model and especially after the masterly sweep of Armed Forces, the insistent narrowness and constriction of Get Happy!! at first sounds like a step backward – a retreat into a solipsistic prison that the artist had seemed, however temporarily, to have overcome. But Costello, as this record shows, never really left his cell. Since the start of his career, he's been like a man trying to outrun an avalanche. On Get Happy!!, he loses the race. And when he tries to dig his way out, he merely manages to dig himself in deeper.
In 1979, Elvis Costello achieved the authority he'd always wanted, only to have it threaten to fall apart in his hands. As the pressures of his sudden stardom grew more intense, his public reaction to them became increasingly outlandish and extreme: a supremely uncharacteristic jet-set romance that seemed to contradict everything he stood for; a brutal, whirlwind tour of America that was like a textbook exercise in paranoid hostility. The culmination was the notorious Ray Charles incident, a debacle that Costello's stiff-necked self-justification simply made worse.
Though it doesn't emerge directly, that bruising experience resonates throughout Get Happy!!, an LP on which fear, disorientation and uncertainty run rampant and are brought under control only by a desperate effort of will. This is an album that springs straight from the tensions and interruptions of life on the road – all of its scenes seem to take place in motel rooms or between planes or over long-distance telephone lines. It's also, in many ways, Costello's most American record: the landscape implied in these compositions is as peculiarly American as the surreal, crazy-quilt United States across which Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert chases his unattainable Lolita.
Get Happy!! is about just such a chase – one of those impossible love affairs that the man knows is hopeless and yet can't extricate himself from: an affair that twists tortuously in larger, more vicious circles. But the woman in these songs (or women – that it makes no difference says enough) never takes on an identity of her own. She's simply the target of an obsession that's completely one-sided. The singer wants to break through to her at least partly to get away from himself, yet no matter which way he turns, all he ever sees is a mirror. Throughout the LP, he speaks to his lover, alternately raging and imploring, hammering at doors of meaning that obstinately stay locked, attempting every emotional gambit he can think of just to force some kind of response. What comes back is a blank. "Everything you say now sounds like it was ghostwritten," Costello frets in "New Amsterdam," and at the close of "B Movie," he repeats "You can't feel" over and over, drawing it out in a horrified whisper. Yet there's no liberation in his anger. Ultimately, nothing is delivered. Like a Möbius strip (with what's listed as side one on the jacket turning up as side two on the inner label, and vice versa), Get Happy!! leads nowhere except back to its own beginning.
The LP opens – according to the jacket sequencing, which makes the most thematic sense – with a hasty, near-panicky remake of Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," and the story that follows spins on a series of similar reversals. "Human Touch" finds Elvis Costello marooned in a stardom that "Looks like luxury / And feels like a disease" and pleading: "I need, I need, I need / The human touch." Which leads right into the hard knocks of "Beaten to the Punch," a different sort of contact than he bargained for. The exuberant conceit of "I Stand Accused" – the only happy moment on Get Happy!!, with Costello joyously declaring, "Loving you is a big crime / I've been guilty a long time!" – turns abruptly sinister in the grim wasteland of "Riot Act," where the woman herself joins the ranks of the accusers and passes, sentence on the singer.
Costello has always loved this kind of verbal trickery, and Get Happy!!, like all his work, bristles with puns, double-entendres, spoonerisms, catch phrases and occupational terminology used suggestively in alien contexts. But now the ceaseless flow of images and metaphors functions as a smoke-screen, a willful distortion of what's really going on. When, in "Man Called Uncle," Costello sings, "Check your effects / Check your reflection / I'm so affected in the face of your affection," you know that his lover's left the room by the time he finishes getting the words out. Costello's like a character in a mystery story, talking more and more brilliantly to distract his audience from noticing that there's a dead body on the floor. Language is the only weapon he has, yet it's inadequate, and the singer realizes it. Indeed, the most riveting moment in "Human Touch" is the wordless howl of frustration that kicks the composition to its climax. What Costello wants is something that finally can't be put into words, and that in itself is part of his anguish.
So it makes sense that Get Happy!! is the first of Elvis Costello's albums on which the lyrics count for less than how he sings them. It doesn't matter, for instance, that "King Horse" is purposefully fragmentary. Listen to the way Steve Naive's rippling, breathtakingly beautiful piano intro is suddenly stopped dead in its tracks by Bruce Thomas' ominous bass, or the way Costello's voice teeters between rage and reconciliation, offering intimacies one minute and snatching them back the next. Moments like these tell you everything you need to know. From the countryish lament of "Motel Matches" to the savage, drunken warble of "High Fidelity," Costello's vocals have an emotional accuracy and a sensuous immediacy that are nothing short of astounding. This is the singing of a man who's so depressed that his bitterness is the one thing that keeps him sane. And the melodies, his most romantically baroque yet, offer a wicked, brittle, ironic counterpoint.
Costello and producer Nick Lowe have taken the rich, high-stepping sound of Armed Forces in a risky but, as it turns out, perfectly apposite direction. They've pared away what most people would consider the rock & roll essentials and made the ornamental pop touches and movie-soundtrack frills of the last record the sonic center of the new one. The tightly worked pop-song structures on Get Happy!! are built around one instrumental flourish after another, with no context to sustain them. Yet the effect isn't slick. Instead, this method makes the music sound raw, urgent and all the more driven, because there's nothing underneath it. Costello doesn't give himself time to linger over any of these numbers: they're jotted down in haste, each of them no more than just another fix on his obsession. If this one doesn't capture her, he figures, maybe the next one will. He is, of course, fortunate in having a band that not only can keep up with him but give him a run for his money. The Attractions were one of the best backup groups in the world on This Year's Model, and since then they've gotten better.
If the first side of Get Happy!! moves irrevocably toward a lacerating stripping away of the illusions of "Riot Act," side two inches its way much more tentatively toward a different, more ambiguous conclusion – and this is where the LP becomes suddenly, unexpectedly great. In the last three songs, Costello comes face to face with everything that's dogged him throughout the album, recognizes that his predicament won't change and arrives at a sort of armed truce with himself that, though it settles nothing, at least allows him to go on. In "Clowntime Is Over," the singer vows to make a fresh start, but the wistful melody and the exhaustion in his voice poignantly belie the words. Then there's "High Fidelity." Even as Costello whispers menacingly. "Some things you never get used to," the tune's tense, martial beat propels him toward the inevitable realization that he doesn't have any choice. He accepts his fate, yet he isn't resigned to it. Not by a long shot.
But it's "New Amsterdam" that sounds like the record's true ending. Set to a lilting, tripping melody that's one of the loveliest Costello's ever written, "New Amsterdam" evokes all the melancholy, tenderness and regret of a seemingly hopeless situation. Among the LP's many unresolvable tensions, it stands as an almost painful moment of lyrical grace. Here, nothing is explained – nothing needs to be. There's simply a delicate acoustic guitar tracing a fatalistic circle, and Costello's soft voice, reaching in vain for a happiness he knows he'll never have, yet somehow – if only for a few seconds – finding peace in his sorrow and reconciliation.
"New Amsterdam" is also a confession of defeat, and in a sense, Get Happy!! fails because Costello fails: he doesn't break through. But, to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, a man's integrity can lie as much in what he is unable to do as in what he is. It's a tribute to the force of Elvis Costello's temperament that we experience both his quest and his failure as our own. He's succeeded in making his obsessions belong to us. For better or worse, we'll all ride them out together to the end.