Elvis Costello has never been one to do things half-assed. If nothing else, his whole career seems to have been devoted to proving that he's really good enough to go around looking like Buddy Holly and use that name. Literally bursting on the music scene in 1977, he released three outstanding albums in two years, works which cemented his reputation as one of rock's most arresting songwriters.
Angry, hurt and occasionally more than a little bit vengeful, his songs reflected an uncompromising mind at odds with virtually every facet of life. His music more than stood by itself as well. Powerful, energetic songs firmly rooted in both traditional rock and roll and pop music, they were in short the stuff great rock singles are made of.
More importantly, each successive Costello record marked a considerable jump in the songwriter's skill, each new release extending his talents to new heights.
Never half-assed, until now. With his new album, Get Happy!! rock's Holden Caulfield has, for the moment at least, affected a holding pattern, perhaps even backsliding a bit.
The main problem is that Get Happy!! breaks no new ground in the tradition of the first three albums. Rather, many earlier themes and ideas are used repeatedly in the new album, giving the listener the feeling he's heard most of it before, which he has, only better, which he has.
Another problem is the sheer number of songs packed onto the album, ten per side, 18 of which are Costello originals. Too much ground is covered to be effective. With only two of the songs over three minutes, and five under two minutes, there is often just too little time for the songs to be developed fully. Songs flash by and are gone before the tune has even had a chance to sink in.
Had much of the excess baggage and half-baked ideas been eliminated, and other ideas properly expanded, Get Happy!! would have been a credible record. There are touches, (but only touches) of Sam and Dave soul ("I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down"), ska ("The Human Touch"), and the Jackson Five ("Love For Tender"), which hint at what could have been.
Not only are the songs crammed together, but most of the songs themselves are so packed, so dense, both musically and lyrically, that listening to them is akin to riding in an over-crowded elevator. Given Costello and producer Nick Lowe's "everything but the kitchen sink" approach, there's no space, no room to breath.
But the music is almost Spartan compared to the lyrics. Given Costello's proclivity for musical conventions, it's understandable that he should one day devote an entire album to that most conventional of pop conventions: love.
In the past, Elvis' long songs, or rather songs about love (it's hard to call anything that spiteful a "love" song), had always maintained an almost liberating sense of defiance. He seemed to know that he would fail at love, but that knowledge only gave him the resolve to try even harder.
On Get Happy!!, that defiance has been replaced by an acceptance of love's ultimate miseries. Gone is the desire of such songs as "Chemistry Class" or anger of "(I Don't Want to) Go to Chelsea." Instead, Costello affects a depressing resignation in the face of reality. He's perpetually losing at love, but instead of getting mad about it, he whines. When he sings "You can't feel" at the end of "B Movie," he's not so much challenging his lover as he is throwing one last ineffectual barb before she leaves him.
In the end, Get Happy!! is an interesting though flawed work. The songs sound quickly thrown together, as though Costello and Lowe were cleaning out their musical closet. Still, even the junk in Costello's closet is better than most people's records, and Costello is too talented to make a really bad album. Yet, given the strength of his earlier work, there's not much to be happy about on Get Happy!!