Elvis Costello is, if anything, an intriguing artist, Aside from the talents of his fine band, he has a unique songwriting ability. He appears to put more thought into his lyrics than a tot of other New Wave-style groups. These lyrics, sung sometimes in a rapid, nonchalant manner belying their complexity, and at other times with an intensity of emotion which is most effective, present new aspects of meaning every time you listen to them.
Get Happy, Costello's fourth album, is unusual in that it contains twenty songs on one disk. Nick Lowe, producer, has written a statement on the jacket, reassuring us that the fidelity of the sound is in no way reduced by the inclusion of more music. Several attentive listenings have brought this reviewer to a qualified positive judgment. A brief summary of developments in style will be helpful in comparing this record to the earlier ones. The most obvious development since Costello's first effort, My Aim Is True, has been the increasing complexity of musical arrangements.
The first album was recorded with a band called Clover, and the relatively simple arrangements allowed Costello's voice to take the spotlight. Since the Attractions joined up with him, the trend has been toward more complex backgrounds and sometimes (especially on This Year's Model) experiments with electronic and synthesizer effects. Armed Forces continued this trend, yet managed to maintain concise, clearly identifiable melodies. It seemed to some that Costello's early anger and frustration had given way to a concern for sellable singles; but beneath the surface, the biting themes remained, sometimes covered up by ironically cheerful tunes (i.e., "Oliver's Army").
A less widely known single, "Crawlin' to the USA," released last year (on the soundtrack of the movie Americathon), has proven to be a precursor to the overall style of the new album. The style, in general, comes across as much more complicated melodies and instrumental backgrounds, and lyrics often unintelligible to all but the most careful listener.
Of course, Costello's vocals have always been a little difficult to understand, which one reviewer of Armed Forces found added to the enjoyment, since you could invent your own idea of what the words were. On this album, however, the clarity of the words is noticeably decreased. It seems that his voice, More than on previous albums, recedes into the background, and is less distinct from it. At times the background beat almost threatens to drown out his voice. The use of some old production techniques (having to do with how the vocals are tracked onto the rest of the recording), may contribute to this phenomenon. Of course, sung with that edge of incomprehension, his lyrics demand close attention.
This is an album which requires careful listening, it is true. But even after an initial hearing, several songs really stand out from the instrumental haze. One of the best is "Motel Matches," in which Costello's hostile criticism of a girl is tempered by a sense that he is jealous — he really does care. He sings to her that boys are "falling for you without a second look / Falling out of your open pocketbook / Falling for you like motel matches."
The Costello trademark — ironic double entendres — is also present: "Though your mind is full of love, in your eyes there's a vacancy/" "Man Called Uncle" has that superficial catchy tune combined with lyrics like, "Look at the man who you call uncle, having a heart attack round your ankles."
Other tracks which make the entire album worth hearing are "New Amsterdam," "High Fidelity," "Opportunity," "King Horse" (a good example of the kind of emotional force Costello can achieve), "Temptation," and "I Stand Accused," in which an unusual metaphor is used to express the theme of frustrated love: "I stand accused of loving you ... I stand, accused and I got no defense ... I need a witness."
On some other tracks, Costello's voice is unable to rise sufficiently above the musical accompaniment. These songs, whose themes are still interesting, turn out sounding rather confusing. "The Imposter," "Riot Act," and "Black and White World" fall into this category.
Since the album will not be available in most American stores for at least another week or two, it is too early to tell if Get Happy will prove as commercially successful as Armed Forces. But it evidently represents a great deal of effort on Costello's part, and despite some weaknesses, the driving beat, Elvis' characteristic vocals, and the superior lyrics make this album no disappointment to those already acquainted with Elvis Costello's talents.