Elvis Costello Ira Robbins - Essay

Ira Robbins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The one factor that most strongly separates Elvis Costello from 99 per cent of the other artists that find their way onto this country's airwaves is his intensity. Some rockers wail convincingly; others write songs of depth and passion; a few play with real fire. But nobody (repeat: nobody) puts it all together with as much concerted power as Elvis and band. His second and third albums (the first suffers too much from imperfect execution) are ticking time bombs of flat-out fury. Even when) he's not tapping his seemingly bottomless well-spring of venom, Costello delivers the goods with convulsive tension. No one else could charge even a love song with so much convincing anxiety.

[Get Happy!!] is different. Disregarding the title (Costello wouldn't dare use such an obvious ploy), the most noticeable change on Get Happy!! is the tempered sense of aggression. Some of the tunes work up a proper head of steam (and that doesn't refer specifically to volume, speed or angst), but the songs' overall effect is palpable inertia. Maybe Costello has worked all the vitriol out of his pained system; more plausibly, he has simply decided to try something different. Costello has taken a jaunty tack—with a decided slant towards '60s Motown—and plastered it all over 20 numbers that vary from ace to awful.

There is no pervasive theme as some have suggested; in no way is this Costello's "up" album. In fact, nothing about Get Happy!! seems thought out enough to indicate preconception or careful preparation towards a specific theme…. Haste, not forethought, is the strongest force here.

It's not a drastic change in musical direction that makes Get Happy!! difficult to accept; the overwhelming effect of so many songs, none of them sounding fully developed, defies comprehension (let alone absorption)…. Get Happy!! takes some work.

If there had been only a dozen songs instead of 20, Get Happy!! could have been an incredible record. As it is, bad items detract from good ones. The album also suffers from a stupefying maze of verses, choruses and refrains…. Take out eight songs and Get Happy!! zips along in much more exciting fashion. Less is definitely more….

Pick your own final cut and enjoy. But don't bother to get happy; I'm sure Costello wouldn't.

Ira Robbins, "Get Less Anxious," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1980 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 4, May, 1980, p. 34.