In the fourth year of his recording career, Elvis Costello has already proven himself a major rock 'n' roll artist without a single hit to his credit. His influence has been felt far and wide. America's sweetheart, Linda Ronstadt, has recorded four of his songs. The example of Costello's incisive musical/verbal attack has toughened up the sound of artists as diverse as Neil Young, Billy Joel and the Kinks.
If economics were the prime motivation in rock 'n' roll, Costello would be imitating Ronstadt. But for all its commercial compromises, rock 'n' roll is still an art, and so Ronstadt imitates Costello. Costello's new album, Get Happy! (Columbia JC 36347), will sell only a small fraction of the totals for Pink Floyd's The Wall. But Costello's fourth record will influence popular music far more and far longer than Pink Floyd's bloated pomposity.
Get Happy! makes explicit Costello's deep roots in black American music. His notorious put-down of Ray Charles was a self-destructive aberration in a career marked by work for England's Rock Against Racism organization.
His new album is drenched in the Stax-Volt Memphis soul sound of Booker T. and Otis Redding. Costello even does a cover version of Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."
Like Dylan's, Costello's career began with dazzling, cryptic lyrics that lashed out in anger at the corruption he saw. Like Dylan at mid-career, Costello is trying to move from the massive "no" of his attacks to some "yes" of affirmation.
On this new record, he hasn't quite found it. But the title is indicative of the quest. On "Human Touch," Costello's band, the Attractions, plays a circus-like reggae shuffle. But the urgency in Costello's voice belies the bouncy music as he shouts: "Though you say it's only an industrial squeeze / It looks like lechery and feels like a disease / I need, I need, I need a human touch!"
Most of the other songs deal with the barriers he sees between himself and that human touch: "Temptation," "The Impostor," "Possession," etc. It all works because he's so good at playing with words and pop motifs. For example, Costello transforms Cole Porter's romantic "Love for Sale" into a punchy "Love for Tender" and then plays on both the financial and affectionate meanings of "tender," thus linking them.