The Random iTunes Man is going all theme weekend on me.
Here’s another track from Elvis Costello, this time from the excellent Get Happy!!. Listening to it has me thinking I ranked this album too low on my list of favorite 80s records. Isn’t that always the case? Whatever you’re enjoying in the moment feels like the best thing ever, until you move on to the next thing.
That’s what makes lists kind of ridiculous. Of course it’s never stopped me from obsessively compiling them.
Best Albums of the 80s – #11
Get Happy!! – Elvis Costello (1980)
Elvis Costello makes his first appearance on this list at #11, but trust me, it won’t be his last. The 80s proved to be the man’s strongest decade by far.
Get Happy!!, Costello’s fourth album, typified the sort of stylistic shifts he had already made on his early records and continues to make to this day. Having explored punk and new wave (filtered, as always, through his own cerebral sensibility) on This Year’s Model and Armed Forces, he turned his attention to R&B.
I wondered how long it would take the Random iTunes Man to settle on an Elvis Costello song.
I have 536 songs performed and/or written by Elvis Costello in my iTunes collection, even more than the 520-something I have by Bob Dylan. You’d think that those two would pop up with some regularity. But through three and a half months of Random Weekends, each of them has come up only once.
When he’s on top of his game, Elvis Costello has no equal as a lyricist. His ability to twist and turn the English language, to fracture and reassemble puns and cliches with devilish glee, borders on the surreal. Particularly on his early albums, Costello’s wordplay is almost frighteningly intricate.
To quote a song on a future Costello album, he calls to mind “a chainsaw running through a dictionary.”
For all of that lyrical ingenuity, or perhaps because of it, it’s often nearly impossible to tell what Costello’s songs are actually about. Often I’ll find myself thinking, “These lyrics are amazing… if only I knew what the hell they meant.”
During my Bob Dylan Weekends, I wrote often about my Dylan Six — the six of his albums that I put on a pedestal high above the rest.
In the case of Elvis Costello, I have a Costello Three. That’s not to dismiss the other 15+ albums he’s released — many of those are classics in their own right — but three of them are simply on another level.
The first of the three, as you’ve no doubt guessed, is Get Happy!!.
Recorded in late 1979 with The Attractions and released in early 1980, Get Happy!! was a departure from the punk pop sounds of his first three albums. This was an R&B/soul record, right down to the retro album cover.
In 1979, Costello stirred up controversy and damaged his career with some drunken racist remarks about Ray Charles and James Brown. He made them in a bar during a fight with some other musicians and days later saw them plastered on the news.
His next album, Get Happy, was a collection of 20 quick-burst soul songs that many listeners read as a reaction to the embarrassing episode. Get Happy is also one part of my Costello Holy Trinity — the three albums I consider his most spectacular achievements (I’ll reveal the other two as they come up chronologically).