Elvis Costello, ever one to top a good line, wants to go Churchill one better. While the New Wave wrestles with minimalism, Costello aspires to mastery, inside an elaborate enigma.
While those around him are losing their heads to a forced and insincere simplicity, Costello is keeping his in all its native eccentricity. The games words play, and people, drive him in some desperation between denunciation and desire. And having vented his intellectual vapors in his lyrics, he proceeds cheerfully to compose musical puns between the lines.
Get Happy!, the latest album by Costello and the Attractions, is a manic display of fire and brimstone, 10 concentrated cuts squeezed to a side. Even the titles have a distinct stoniness: "Temptation," "Possession," "Black and White World," "B Movie."
But it's engagingly schizophrenic: songs of motels and barren flats and love sold or stolen, all ringing hollowly inside a cavernous electric organ like roller-rink music. It's a new theater of the absurd: rock on the roll.
Where Phil Spector painstakingly built a wall of sound, producer Nick Lowe has constructed a chain-link fence. The various tracks exist simultaneously but distinctly. Sometimes the harmonies sound as if they were shouted from across the room, or as if Costello was singing with a tape recorder of the other vocal. The vocals stagger from speaker to speaker and in and out of focus. It's revisionist engineering, highly polished and wanting to seem raw. White it works to the advantage of several numbers, Lowe overdoes it. It's affectation, and I say the hell with it.
Costello can be overly affected, too, but his etymological musings are contagious. The declarations of love are "High Fidelity"; when an affair breaks up, is "Possession" exorcised or carted away in a suitcase? "My case is packed, my case is closed."
The most successful pun, which is the basis of the finest and most frenetic (1:58) track on the album, is "Love for Tender." You won't take my love for tender; You can put your money where your mouth is, But you're so unsure. I could be a miser, or a big spender, But you might get much more than you bargained for.
Love, in Costello's lexicon, is not blind, but it's not beautiful, either. The objects of his qualified affections are exposed as gold-diggers if not professionally for hire; "Look at the man that you call uncle / Having a heart attack 'round your ankles."
And yet he cannot help but desire them. In his grim and grimy night, they burn with a brittle heat: "Falling for you without a second look / Falling out of your open pocketbook / Giving you away like motel matches."
There is a deliberate simplicity and power in much of Costello's imagery: "Now I now that you're on King Horse / Filled with tenderness and brute force." Some is merely playful — "Till I put on brakes to get out of her clutches" — but rarely clumsy.
The admiration many British musicians have for early American rock idioms, particularly garage bands and rockabilly, is evident in "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," R&B with a true Sun Records swing to it.
Still, the album is much of a muchness. This time around, Costello has not ventureed so far afield with his melodies or progressions. There is nothing so finely chiseled or so arresting as "Accidents Will Happen." But the hammered edge of Costello's ire is still the last best hope for wide exposure of the Costello-Lowe-Parkerilla fringe.