Review Summary: After three straight masterpieces, Costello keeps up his batting average and finally moves out of the narrow confines of punk rock for good.
By 1980, Elvis Costello was one of the few members of the No Future crowd whose future actually looked very bright: his first three albums were acknowledged as classics from the start, and his pissed-off Buddy Holly look only made him more interesting. Each of those early albums struck a remarkable balance between wry wordplay, pop sensibility, punkish attitude, and rage. Lots and lots of geek rage. But even the relatively consistent sound linking My Aim is True
, This Year’s Model
and Armed Forces
suggested an artist with too many inspirations to remain within the strict confines of punk for very long (he was always a bit of a loose fit, anyway).
marks the turning point in Costello’s career, where he went from being punk’s pissed off incarnation of Buddy Holly to the eclectic pop king we recognize today. Costello’s trademark keyboards, drums ‘n bass style is still on display, but here Costello uses the Attractions to hammer out 20 short bursts of retro rhythm and blues mixed with his established new wave sound.
Consider the bouncy opening number, “Love For Tender:” it’s very much in line with the sort of upbeat rejection song that populated (some would say overly so) his first three albums. It starts with a bit of honky-tonk piano before Bruce Thomas’ bass comes thumping in and Elvis launches into a rant that manages to combine a plea for love with a bitter reaction against his inevitable rejection, all the while using money metaphors to slyly send up the Beatles’ notion that “All You Need Is Love.”
And it only gets better from there: after the smooth-as-molasses “Opportunity,” the band kicks into “The Imposter” like someone’s about to kick them out of the studio, only to slam back down into slow-dance pop with “Secondary Modern.” “King Horse” fragments into a state of organized chaos, caught between Costello’s polar states of spitting rage and pleading begging and reconciliation. Then there’s the incredible cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” which bursts at the seams with desperation and sincerity: Costello makes it his song just as he did with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Elsewhere, Costello’s gift for imagery and wordplay comes to the fore. “New Amsterdam” is as much about the city of New York as it is the unresponsive lover he’s devoted four albums’ worth of bile and pleading to, what with his mention of “The transparent people who live on the other side/Living a life that is almost like suicide”
(NYC was originally New Amsterdam when the Dutch claimed it as their territory). Likewise, the radio metaphors of “High Fidelity” speak of a woman dating the singer just long enough until the next guy comes along, even though he’s broadcasting the signal of “true love” on high fidelity. Trust me, it’s not corny when he sings it.
Of the 20 tracks on the album, there isn’t a duff track to be found, even if it loses a bit of its immediacy in the second half with not-quite-filler such as “Black and White World,” “Beaten to the Punch” and “Motel Matches.” Nevertheless, these tunes contain enough clever lyrics and/or catchy instrumentation to keep your head boppin’ and thinking at the same time.
Shortly before the Attractions went into the studio for this album, Costello finally became a bit of a household name, though certainly not in the way he would have wanted: in a drunken conversation with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, Costello attempted to offend his way out of the argument by making racist comments regarding James Brown and Ray Charles. Suddenly the artists had to fend off accusations of racism, which has led to a few takes on the R&B slant of Get Happy!!
: some believe that Costello went back to his old Stax records for inspiration to basically advertise to the world “Hey, I actually like black people!” Costello denies this, and I’m inclined to believe him: the man is too smart to think that simply throwing together some retro sounds would properly atone for what he did.
Either way, the controversy feeds the final track, “Riot Act,” a track so comprehensive and concise it not only sums up the artist’s state of mind at the moment but casts everything he’s written up until this point in an almost conceptual light: in a memorable scene from Spike Lee’s 25th Hour
, Ed Norton’s character disparages the various ethnicities of New York City with bile and vitriol, only to quietly and somberly turn his insults on himself at the end, recognizing he’s the only person he ever truly hated. “Riot Act” gently floats out of your speakers as Costello’s lyrics waft through the wash of keyboards, even admitting “it doesn't look like I'm gonna be around much anymore.” He still speaks ill of that pesky love of his, but now he seems to realize that his own obsessions and mistakes have ruined him, not some woman. As much as the album’s sound shows Costello moving away from his early stuff, it is with this perfect closer that we really see the artist’s first chapter end.
may lack the fire of This Year’s Model
and the irresistible pop of Armed Forces
, but it’s easily one of Elvis Costello’s finest moments and as good a place as any to show what a talented songwriter the man is. Whether his drunken slurs made him break out old R&B records is largely irrelevant, but they certainly lit a fire under the artist’s ass and gave him something to prove when he seemed to be in a position that would allow him to coast for years. But far more important than any of the sordid backstory is the simple fact that the album continues to rock and swing decades later. The Attractions had never been tighter, and if you don’t shake your hips to the bursts of genius on this record you must be dead.