Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Elvis Costello - Get Happy!!

I get a new turntable and dust off some old albums. Vinyl Tap #15:

One of my favorite advertising slogans centers around Get Happy!! -- Elvis Costello's fourth studio album: “20 Songs -- All Different!” was not only amusingly pithy and startling in the pre-CD era where the standard-issue LP rarely reckoned beyond the dirt-cheap dozen, but it alluded to the kaleidoscopic gladdening and maddening crowd of blue-eyed surging soul-raves and Motown bass-backed manic pop-rock thrills, peppered with a little poignancy here and a little country twang there.

On the lyrical and thematic side, Get Happy is a wonderfully sloppy sketchbook, bursting out of the bulging binding and tattered covers with ideas, cynicism and bliss, wordplay of the clever, non-sequitur and quotable kind -- all anchored to Costello’s innate hook-filled melodic sense and his explorations of emotional relationships that pass in the night or of the longer-lasting love-lashed kind replete with hand-wringing entanglements and recriminations.

We can find “Lovers laughing in their amateur hour” in the booming Gordy Records-glory of “High Fidelity,” but communications soon break down with “signals indistinct." In a larger sense, as outlined in “Temptation,” the marital rigmarole from courting rituals to court proceedings finds “You’re just itching to break her secret laws / As you go from claws to clause.” Leaving you, as sung in the ska-punched “Human Touch,” in a state in which you’re “Left with just a house to hold / Drinking your way to drydock.”

In the well-crafted and perfectly-honed 1986 album King Of America -- in many ways the polar opposite anti-Get Happy!! album -- Costello mentions, in “Our Little Angel,” someone who is “so contrary / Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary.” The same song also cites “the place where I made my best mistakes.” Both qualities -- the prodigious, prolific and all-over-the-map hyperdrive, and the experimental self-assured chance-taking that produces the goods and the goofs  -- infuse Get Happy!! and make it a rough-edged and raw happy accident classic.

Costello’s aim is equally untried and true. Some tracks are just more equal than others, and you’ll only have to wait a couple minutes for a proper pendulum equilibrium. If, for some reason, you find in the propulsive “5 Gears In Reverse” that “All of this acceleration is driving you to death,” or the rapid-fire “Beaten To The Punch” commands you to “better get out now because you’ll never go the distance,” -- just wait a couple minutes and the gorgeously lilting “New Amsterdam" will crop up, or the soothing textures of the death-shuffle melancholy of “Secondary Modern” will grab you with its sinister sibilance that prefigures the insidious tone of “New Lace Sleeves” and “Watch Your Step” from Trust.  As "Secondary" asserts, “Nobody makes me sad like you / Now my whole world goes from blue to blue.”

Indeed. Don’t, despite the many jolts of joy Happy sparks, expect that you’ll ever really really Get Happy here. Even in the most seemingly blithe-spirited song, there’s a catch with each catch of the throat. There's insecurity lurking everywhere, and nobody’s sending in the clowns -- “Clowntime Is Over”:

     Almost too good to be true
     Who do you? why do you? what do you do?
     While everybody’s hiding under covers
     Who’s making lovers lane safe again for lovers?

Love "starts with a face and ends up a fixation,” as Costello sings in “Black And White World,” but the obsessions also see the fantasy become physical “as you feel the fingers' friction.” In “B Movie” we’re not going to get slapstick or an on-the-cheap Western or Romance…well, not any of those sticky valentine Romances with a happy ending:

     B movie, that’s all you are to me
     Just a soft soap story
     Don’t want the woman to adore me
     You cant stand it when it goes from real to reel
     Too real too real
     You cant stand it when I throw punch lines you can feel…

There’s enough blame to go around these days when “Forever doesn’t mean forever anymore”: In the torch-song intensity of “Riot Act,” Costello posits “Instead of all this dumb, dumb insolence / I would be happier with amnesia” -- a psychologically tormented mission statement from hell, delivered in an amazingly vein-popping angst-ridden declaration. As the passion pours from every pore, you believe him and believe in him. He doesn’t take these things lightly, and he expects the same from others: "Don’t put your heart out on your sleeve / When your remarks are off the cuff.”

“There’s no need to be evasive / Money talks and it's persuasive,” Costello bites in the bitterly and infectiously melodic tonic “Possession,” as perfect an encapsulation of Get Happy’s wordplay legerdemain and moods for moderns:

     Now you’re sending me your best wishes
     Signed with love and vicious kisses
     You lack lust, you’re so lackluster
     Is that all the strength you can muster...

     ...Even when we are out of touch
     Now I know that I’ve seen too much...
     ...So I see us lying back to back
     My case is closed my case is packed
     Ill get out before the violence
     Or the tears or the silence.

“Forget your troubles and just get happy / Ya better chase all your cares away” goes the mood-brightening Harold Arlen song from the 1930s. There was a worse and different kind of Depression going on at that time. But try telling that to a starcrossed contrarian with pointed insights -- and visions of chain-saws in his own inner lexicon of love and what comes after.


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