Elvis Costello – Get Happy!!

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An album with twenty tracks by a straight-shooter like Elvis Costello should right off the bat set off warning bells that there’s going to be filler, but you have the blinding color combination (very few of these colors go together; blue and green or blue and purple are safe bets, but whoever heard of green and orange?) and the dual exclamation marks in the album title to distract. Then, you have producer Nick Lowe’s guarantee on the back that there’s no going to be filler, “Elvis and I […] reassure hi-fi enthusiasts and/or people who never bought a record before 1967 that with the inclusion of this extra music time they will find no loss of sound quality due to “groove cramming” as the record nears the end of each face.”

Anyway, this is certainly a safe bet for Elvis Costello’s fourth best album – excepting the order, you get three guesses as to what his best three are. But, let’s play a game, shall we? I’ll name a bunch of well-known Elvis Costello tracks and you tell me what all of them have in common: “Alison,” “Less Than Zero,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Pump It Up,” “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea,” “Radio, Radio,” “Oliver’s Army,” “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?”, etc. (I could go further, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s just use the singles). Do you know what they all have in common? They all have runtimes past the 3-minute mark. Now, look at the track list for Get Happy!! again. Only four of these tracks pass the 3-minute mark (and in the case of “King Horse,” and “Clowntime,” they barely make it). (Not to say I’m necessarily against short tracks: I’m a fan of “Welcome to the Working Week,” and “Mystery Dance,” and Minutemen as any.)

Nick Lowe was half-correct though; this one doesn’t suffer from a “loss of sound quality” as it plays through, and that’s because Elvis Costello sadistically places the best tracks at the front and back ends of each side: “Love For Tender” opens the album with a playful keyboard riff, immediately stating that this is not the same Elvis Costello you’re used to before launching into a Motown feel. A wonderfully insistent bass and handclaps-percussion keep up the momentum, but unfortunately Costello gets delegated to the background in the mix, instead of dominating the track as he normally does (and as he should). The two best tracks of the album find themselves at the end of the first side and start of the second side: “High Fidelity” (some really great Steve Nieve playing on this one) and “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down)” both have the best hooks on the album, and the only ones here that rank somewhere in the best of Costello’s career. (Unsurprisingly, both released as the album’s choice singles.) On the other side of the album is the soul-inflected “Riot Act,” which ends the album on a good note, thanks to actually building towards something, instead of presenting every at once as most every other track on the album does.

There are a couple of highlights dispersed throughout, but not enough to make me convinced of Get Happy!! finding its way onto decade-end lists (ie. #11 on Rolling Stone‘s, #26 on Pitchfork‘s). In particular, “King Horse” is the only one that is ever reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s angst; if that were to be found anywhere else on the album, it was lost by the glossy production. “King Horse” also benefits from the layered vocals, although you’d have to strain yourself to really catch them. Apparently, “King Horse” is dedicated to macho men who hit on waitresses annoyingly, the ones who think they’re God’s gift to women, but aren’t. *Sidenote: I was at a bar once and witnessed a waitress asked a group if they wanted anything else and one douchebag turned and said “Only if it comes with a shot of you.” No joke, you can’t make this stuff up.)

Other highlights not mentioned so far include “Possession,” “Men Called Uncle,” “New Amsterdam,” and “Black & White World.” Most of these songs prove George Starostin to be correct when he notes that “The most overwhelming presence, however, is unquestionably Steve Nieve’s. His riffs, solos, textures, atmospheres are everywhere, and stylistically he pushes apart the limits of Armed Forces and shows that be it New Wave, Motown or traditional Britpop, it’s all capturable with just a pair of hands and a pair of dusty keyboards. Elvis himself, on the contrary, steps back as far as playing is concerned – it’s hardly a coincidence that he has his hands buried deep in his pockets on the front cover – and lets Nieve rule the world even tighter than he did on Armed Forces.”

I can’t help but compare Get Happy!! with another album released that same year with the exact same problem; the Residents’ Commercial Album, but that one was making a statement in its short tracktimes. Even if Get Happy!! were a statement – an apology for debasing both James Brown and Ray Charles in drunken, racist stupor (it’s not; Elvis Costello has gone on record to say that Get Happy!! is the work of spontaneity, not a carefully plotted apology to those artists by putting R&B in new wave templates) – it would have been much better if it were a fleshed out 12-track album.

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