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Rank the Records: Get Happy!! (1980)
That Fatal Mailing List #102
It’s probably a bit too bold to say that Get Happy!! “announces itself” with its opening track “Love for Tender,” but as a statement of intent, it’s all there—the musical approach, the thematic concerns, the petulant sneer softened by the comforting sounds of a neo-Motown/Stax arrangement and production.
Even though this was his next release after the infamous incident in Columbus, OH in 1979, Elvis Costello has denied any attempt to placate critics with an album inspired and influenced by the music of African-American R&B and soul records. It’s easy to believe that because Get Happy!! goes beyond influence and inspiration to marry sounds from the past with Costello’s own contemporary songwriting, evolving with every album toward greater depth and meaning.
His scope doesn’t necessarily change on Get Happy!! He’s still telling small stories about the emotional intricacies of “third-rate romance.” But his skills continue to sharpen, as on one of my personal favorite Get Happy!! cuts and probably one of my top ten EC songs of all time, “King Horse.” It starts with rich, sordid detail that puts the listener in a place and a feeling within a few quick lines:
Cheap cut satin and bad perfume
Showtime is almost here
Teased up by a strip cartoon
Laughing up your sleeve
Sniggering in your beer
So far, that’s a pretty typical Costellian tableau—a dark, seamy nightclub, where intimacy becomes transactional and that exchange prompts irreverent dismissal with a laugh and a snigger. But where it goes next is atypical for Costello’s songwriting at the time; it’s a quantum leap forward.
He'd seen the bottom of a lot of glasses
But he'd never seen love so near
He'd seen love get so expensive
But he'd never seen love so dear
Suddenly, pathos. And this drunkard doesn’t even deserve it. He’s the one sniggering, after all. But still, we get a ray of light cast upon this loser to reveal his own moment of clarity—love, or something quite like it, amid the sex and cruelty. Between tenderness and brute force, as the chorus will explain.
Of course, this is no happy-ending story where the waitress and the drunkard somehow find each other amid the smoke and booze to escape their circumstances. In fact, the opposite happens; “He says, ‘Would you please’ / And she says, ‘Stop.’”
“King Horse” also showcases the contributions of the Attractions to Get Happy!! It’s safe to say that without them, making this pivot to R&B/soul homage would not have been possible. Pete Thomas delivers explosive drum fills that lead into every chorus; Bruce Thomas’ bass line is constantly wriggling alongside the melody. And that pristine piano signature from Steve Nieve elevates the aching need at the heart of the song into high drama, interpolating the opening of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” from the Four Tops.
Love as transaction is a key theme of Get Happy!!, starting with opener “Love For Tender,” where the song’s narrator makes it clear how he approaches his affairs of the heart and the pocketbook:
I’m so in love, I'm so sincere
Just like a well-known financier
You know I've never been corrupt
When analogy doesn’t hit the mark, Costello gets explicit, as on “Possession”:
If there's anything that you want
If there's anything that you need
There's no need to be evasive
Money talks and it's persuasive
If love can’t be earned, maybe it can be bought outright. In “Motel Matches,” the singer finds himself “falling out of your open pocketbook.” On “B-Movie,” he finds America “hiding in the corner of my wallet.” It’s a cold idea, in its way just as chilling as the “love as fascism” exploration of Armed Forces. But Costello tempers that coldness with moments like the one in “King Horse,” where he’s capable not just of carefully observed eviscerations, but of empathy for his characters, no matter how desperate or pathetic they appear.
Those moments may be rare, but they start to emerge on Get Happy!!. That’s an evolution for Costello as a songwriter, and it will continue to flourish in the many albums and songs to come. It’s what turns a sneering punk opining on “revenge and guilt” into a truly nuanced and observant chronicler of romantic entanglements.
Far from constricting or pigeonholing his music, Costello’s combination of tribute and adaptation on Get Happy!! serves to broaden his emotional pallette. It’s a transitional album in some ways, from the brittle edge of his first three records to the increasing depth and resonance of Trust and Imperial Bedroom. But it stands alone as an explosion of creativity and musicality from a songwriter coming into his own, backed by a band at the top of their form.
Listen to Get Happy!! on the streaming service of your choice.
Rank the Records is a recurring feature at That Fatal Mailing List, where we dig into one of Elvis Costello’s 32 studio albums (according to Wikipedia) and I provide a completely subjective opinion on how they rank against each other. What’s my favorite EC record? What’s my seventeenth-favorite EC record?! Find out as we…RANK THE RECORDS (TM).