Well, I know Elvis Costello is a rock 'n' roll animal, honest I do. It's just that once I get going on these emotive showstoppers of his, it's real hard to quit. So I might as well wind up the week with one of his first, and still one of his finest.
Get Happy! is one of the Big Albums of My Life, for all sorts of personal reasons, but also because it just IS a superlative record, no matter what the critics said in 1980. Elvis’ songwriting was simply on fire, his band was tight as a coiled spring, and he was just beginning to channel his inner torch singer. Just hear him on the "Riot Act," lacing into his wife/girlfriend for accusing him of infidelity. Somehow I don't pity him, though — probably because just a couple tracks earlier, we learned all about his own tawdry, tormented affair in the heart-wrenching "Motel Matches."
At the song's heart is a great little film noir detail, the packet of motel matches spilling out of a guilty woman's purse. (I can just see the zooming close-up, the zinging strings on the soundtrack.) We're in "Watching the Detectives" territory all over again. The song begins "Somewhere in the distance I can hear 'Who shot Sam?' / This is my conviction: I am an innocent man." Innocent of what, exactly? because it's pretty clear he's embroiled with this woman; desperately entangled, in fact. "Falling for you without a second look / Falling out of your open pocketbook / Giving you away like motel matches." She owns him right now.
There's a whole line of motel allusions — the intruder "Boys everywhere, fumbling with the catches," the fire alarm going off as "I wake with the siren in an emergency" ("siren" also meaning the temptress beside him in that hotel bed), the flickering neon as "the light outside changes from red to blue" (e.g., from passion's heat to morose despair). And my favorite motel pun of them all, "Though your mind is full of love / In your eyes there is a vacancy." Of course it's sophomorically clever, but still, I love it.
The chief thing, though, is the way Elvis's voice writhes and caresses and yelps and groans throughout the song. The way he flips skittishly through those rapid-fire lyrics (it took me ages to figure out what he was saying on some lines). The big-gesture drum smashes, the holy-roller organ chords — there's absolutely no holding back on the histrionics here. It is not a reflective song at all; it's pure angst. Which is exactly what an affair feels like, isn't it? (Or so I've been told.)
I know there are other sides to Elvis Costello. I love those other sides of him. But sometimes, I just need to get out my handkerchief, pour a stiff drink, and wallow in Elvis the Torch Singer. Satisfaction guaranteed, every time.