ECSOTW#19: Signed With Love and Vicious Kisses

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JORGE FARAH: Get Happy was the first of several albums in Costello’s oeuvre that felt like very sudden, screeching left turns from what seemed like a natural progression in sound, but that actually make a whole lot of sense when considered within the context of his larger catalogue. My Aim is True into Armed Forces showed a gradual transition from workmanlike pub-rock into the more colorful, Bacharach-esque baroque-pop that would come to define him in the eyes of the general public. And then he released Get Happy, this sprawling (yet remarkably concise for its monstrous tracklist) collection of manic, feverishly kinetic songs that sound like highly caffeinated reinterpretations of Motown, Stax, ska and R&B. It’s an album that sits awkwardly just outside of EC’s “classic period”—coming hot off the heels of three iconic albums– but still occupies an important part in his body of work as a highly-regarded little oddity. No other Elvis Costello sounds or feels like like Get Happy.  No other Elvis Costello album has really tried. As many Costello-isms as there are in these songs – the melodic tics, the lyrical wordplay, the unmistakably playing of The Attractions—it really does seem like a momentary glimpse into a different musician’s discography.

“Possession” is one of a handful of tracks in this album that wouldn’t sound completely out of place in Armed Forces. It is one of the few songs here that lacks that driving, almost deranged energy that pushes a song like “The Imposter” forward, or that makes “Black and White World” sound like it could collapse at any moment. Much of this album feels like Elvis listening back to his recent output, then looking around at the music that was being made by his contemporaries in late 1979, and promptly tearing off the label of “New Wave” in disgust. “Possession”, however, is a mid-tempo (or about as mid-tempo as it gets on this album) number that bounces along placidly; in fact, I think the “bounciness” in Bruce Thomas’s wonderful bassline is the main element that keeps this sounding at least somewhat distinct from anything on Armed Forces. The bass here is probably my favorite element in the entire song, as the composition is merely serviceable, the performances are solid but not particularly noteworthy, and the lyrics are fairly standard 70s Costello (themes of lust and betrayal, puns that by now begin to veer into eyeroll territory—“you lack lust, you’re so lackluster” appearing to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the man himself, seeing as how he reined it in considerably on future releases).

In our previous post, we wrote about “It’s Time”, a song that detractors tend to point to as an example of Elvis “oversinging”. And I understand the criticism. It makes absolute sense. He really goes for it, and consequently he may overshoot it at times. But to me, that all-out unrestrained performance fits perfectly with the song’s melody, subject matter and drama. I would point back to a song like “Possession” as an example of what true oversinging sounds like; here’s Elvis at the peak of his vocal affectations, sounding closer to a cartoon character than a human being, emoting all over a song that doesn’t really warrant it.

I have to say with some sadness that this is one of a very few Elvis Costello songs that doesn’t really do much for me; at the very least, it’s a pleasant but solidly average tune sandwiched between a bunch of better, more exciting tunes. And that’s bound to happen when you cram 20 songs into an album. “Possession” is not without its charms, but the man was producing masterpieces by the dozen.  This would’ve been a highlight on just about any other person’s album. On Get Happy, it’s cannon fodder.

KEVIN DAVIS: Ouch – some harsh words from Jorge on what has always been one of my favorite Get Happy tracks, in a rare-ish disagreement that I suppose ought to be somewhat relished. When two dudes not only love the same niche artist but also the same niche albums and most of the same niche tracks within in the canon of said artist, it’s nice to have these little moments to occasionally remind us that we’re two different individuals listening to this music with two different hearts, minds, and sets of ears. For in “Possession” I truly hear almost the complete opposite of what my co-author hears – a perfectly toned little pop song with a pure, rich melodic center, and while I can see where someone would bring charges of oversinging against Costello for his performance here, I think the exaggeratedly emotional, somewhat teary-sounding sense of pleading in this song is both welcome contrast to and respite from the spitfire ironies and wisecracking of the album as a whole. While I love the dizzying songcraft of Get Happy (and I do – only This Year’s Model and North occupy comparable real estate atop my all-time favorites list), I think “Possession” is one of its few tracks that pays tribute to its sources in melody and harmony as much as in rhythm. Its key is simplicity, and there weren’t many Costello songs in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s whose keys were simplicity; in that sense, this is something of an advanced piece of writing for the man, an early version of the kind of easygoing, major-key pop melody he’d advance on songs like “Man Out of Time” and “Blue Chair.”

It’s not an unfair thing to criticize Get Happy for being a bit too rich in wordplay, nor is it an irrelevant observation that this album represents a sort of tipping point for Costello’s cleverness, but I don’t know that “Possession” is one of the album’s worse offenders. It hinges on a simple chorus that does nothing but repeat the title line, swiftly at the cross-section between measures, almost as an affirmative period on the mournful little organ phrase by Steve Nieve that accounts for as much of a “chorus” as the lyrics do (as he always does, Costello sounds great harmonizing with himself here, multi-part harmony being perhaps the one element of the Motown sound that the Attractions weren’t equipped to pay proper homage to). And despite a few rote one-liners that look crappy on paper, the melody steers the language such that only the “you lack lust…” line mentioned by Jorge really stands out, and only when you really stop to consider what a dumb line that is does it really disrupt the fluidity of the melody. When Costello sings “money talks and it’s persuasive,” it feels like an intentional callback to Bob Dylan’s line “money doesn’t talk, it swears” from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and most of the other language in the song feels deliberately one-dimensional – there isn’t a lot to read, for instance, into a couplet like, “Now you’re sending me your best wishes/Signed with love and vicious kisses.” This is a song that’s carried by its somewhat inflated sense of melodrama, as so much soul and rhythm-and-blues music is. And in the end it’s just that vibe that I really love about the song – that feel of a spacious and resolute major-key arrangement just working, saying its piece as concisely as possible and getting out of there in 2:02 or less.

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