February 15, 1980, Elvis Costello and the Attractions released their fourth full-length, Get Happy!! Elvis was going for a retro vibe to this record and even incorporated that into the sleeve’s cover art with an intentional sixties style throwback complete with ring wear in the center as part of the design.
Get Happy!! is a difficult album for me to get a grip on. It’s not that I dislike it – I like most everything Declan MacManus has ever put out – but it comes straight on the heels of the triple whammy that was his first three records. It would have been hard for any artist to follow up the three year blitzkrieg comprised of My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces. He hadn’t hit a rut or hit a wall. In fact, the album explores some new territory with the band and features some phenomenal songs but I have to say, it doesn’t crack my Top 10 Elvis Costello records.
Granted, any Elvis Costello record is going to be pretty good and well worth the price of admission. And this is an awesome album to pop on while driving and just let the upbeat tunes lift your mood as the road melts away beneath you. Maybe it’s because nearly the whole package is uptempo, but it seems to lack some of the depth and cynicism of his earlier works. Additionally, he was intentionally trying to mold the songs into a specific style whereas his first three LPs were 100% pure unadulterated Elvis.
Get Happy!! starts off with the rollicking “Love For Tender,” two minutes of garage-band soul highlighted by Steve Nieve‘s organ and propelled by Pete Thomas‘s pounding drums. At under two minutes it sets the breakneck pace for the album, which runs through twenty songs in just over 48 minutes. The song also reacquaints us with Elvis Costello’s love of wordplay as “tender” here is used to mean “money,” and not the way that other Elvis used it in “Love Me Tender.”
The Attractions shine throughout the entire production. Bruce Thomas opens “Secondary Modern” with a low-slung bass offset by Nieve’s piano stabs to add a noir tinge to this midtempo number. The backing trio never sounds better than they do on “King Horse,” and drive through the queerly titled new wave rocker “5ive Gears In Reverse” sounding like a party waiting to happen.
This release is pointedly more R&B influenced than his earlier albums and closes with the soul crooner “Riot Act.” This is an amazing song, but because it’s so good, it actually ends up highlighting one of Costello’s shortcomings. I’ve always loved his voice – there is no one else who sounds like him – but he’s not a soul singer. “Riot Act,” in the hands of a more capable vocalist would swoop and soar and the song structure cries out for a wailing, plaintive delivery which Costello decides against here, possibly estimating it to be outside his range. It’s a testament to his skill as a songwriter and performer that this is still a fantastic song, but it also makes me wonder how it would sound with an alternative arrangement and delivery.
As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Get Happy!! and I realize that I’ve given every song on the album five stars in my iTunes catalog, I like all of the songs, and I can sing word-for-word with most of them. So if it sounds like I’m being scant with my praise, that’s hardly my intent. I’ve said there’s very little that Elvis Costello has done that I don’t enjoy and I do thoroughly enjoy this record. The only time it falls short, for me, is in comparison to his other albums. I actually pulled up his entire discography and, just glancing through, he has at least a dozen releases that I prefer. And I know other Elvis Costello fans who consider this album near the top of his output, so maybe I’m missing something.
Regardless of where it’s ranked, you can’t go wrong with this. It’s accurately named in that it is almost entirely uptempo pop music (there are a couple of exceptions) that you can bob your head or even dance to. Elvis Costello’s lyrics, vocals, and wordplay are topnotch throughout, and the band is outstanding on every cut. In other words, it’s just the thing to put on the hi-fi when you want to Get Happy!!