If you've ever paid some amount of attention to Elvis Costello's first three albums, you've probably noticed that each one has started off with a solo voice. This was a direct confrontation to you, the listener. It was also a forceful attempt to accept the singer as he is before the music has even started. Much of this could be stripped to Costello's angry young man personna, a man who once said he wanted to die before he witnessed his artistic decline.
So it comes as a surprise that the first song on Get Happy (depending on which side you consider to be side one; the album jacket and record label do not match up) starts off without a voice, without that confrontation. Is Elvis Costello backing down? No way.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions' Get Happy is the most ambitious Costello album in his four record career. But it is also the least political, and the most extensive move toward the black side influence of pop music. (Funny... don't I remember accusations of Elvis as a racist sometime back? Interesting...) Costello has occasionally moved in this direction (the reggae influenced "Watching the Detectives" being the prime example), but not to the massive amounts of Get Happy. There are two covers here, an obscure Sam and Dave tune, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," and the Detroit Emeralds' "I Stand Accused." Even though the new album wallows in the Stax/Volt riffs and rhythms of the late sixties, pop remains Costello's metier.
Costello has not abandoned the pop field; in fact, his embracing of sixties soul has broadened his pop base. The slow acceptance his music has melted away some Of the ice cold personality that once made such sentiment as "sometimes I almost feel like a human being" cut so sharply. He hasn't lost it completely; "If I say that I love you, then I must be delirious" goes a line in "Man Called Uncle" off the new lp.
There are twenty songs on the new album, making it a bona fide "Long Player." This is a sharp slap to artists (Lowell George, Eric Carmen, Van Halen) who put less than a half hour's worth of music on one album. At times, though, some of Costello's songs are brutally short — "Almost Beaten to the Punch" seems to cut off before it really hits you. This can work both ways, too. A song like "Love for Tender" kicks hard, has no instrumental self-indulgence, drives the point home, and then ends. This is the model of the two minute pop songs that became sixties classics.
Surrounding the pop soul tunes are an impressive array of styles. "Motel Matches" is almost country, and I could almost see it being covered in the same way George Jones and Rachel Sweet covered "Stranger in the House." Elvis appears to be ready to absolve some of his image; the goofy shouting at the end of "Almost Beaten..." seems to be a stab at some good-natured humor. He truly seems to have "gotten happy."
Producer Nick Lowe has helped guide Costello (who is a searing but limited guitarist) and the Attractions through many new stylistic variations. The sound here is somewhat reminiscent of the first album with more keyboard emphasis. Just how much of this is Lowe's doing as opposed to Costello's is questionable. Costello recently produced the P Specials (an English ska band) and the ska influence is readily noticeable on "I Can't Stand Up" and "The Imposter." The musicianship of the Attractions reflects these moves; the sound is as stripped down as it is complicated by sometimes jazzy interludes ("Secondary Modern"). If all of this sounds like a confusing musical potpourri, it really isn't. What it is is a twenty song lp that should not be missed. (Just try to ignore the-as-usual-dreadful cover art.) Because if you can't find a song out of the twenty to suit your tastes, then maybe you need new tastes. Now get happy.