In the fourth year of his recording career, Elvis Costello has already proven himself a major rock 'n' roll artist without a single hit to his credit. His influence has been felt far and wide. America's sweetheart, Linda Ronstadt, has recorded four of his songs. The example of Costello's incisive musical/verbal attack has toughened up the sound of artists as diverse as Neil Young, Billy Joel and the Kinks.
If economics were the prime motivation in rock 'n' roll, Costello would be imitating Ronstadt. But for all its commercial compromises, rock 'n' roll is still an art, and so Ronstadt imitates Costello. Costello's new album, "Get Happy!" (Columbia JC 36347), will sell only a small fraction of the totals for Pink Floyd's "The Wall." But Costello's fourth record will influence popular music far more and far longer than Pink Floyd's bloated pomposity.
"get Happy!" makes explicit Costello's deep roots in black American music. His notorious put-down of Ray Charles was a self-destructive aberration in a career marked by work for England's Rock Against Racism organization.
His new album is drenched in the Stax-Volt Memphis soul sound of Booker T. and Otis Redding. Costello even does a cover version of Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."
Like Dylan's, Costello's career began with dazzling, cryptic lyrics that lashed out in anger at the corruption he saw. Like Dylan at mid-career, Costello is trying to move from the massive "no" of his attacks to some "yes" of affirmation.
On this new record, he hasn't quite found it. But the title is indicative of the quest. On "human Touch," Costello's band, the Attractions, plays a circuslike reggae shuffle. But the urgency in Costello's voice belies the bouncy music as he shouts: "Though you say it's only an industrial squeeze/It looks like lechery and feels like a disease/I need, I need, I need a human touch!"
Most of the other songs deal with the barriers he sees between himself and that human touch: 'Temptation," "The Impostor," "Possession," etc. It all works because he's so good at playing with words and pop motifs. For example, Costello transforms Cole Porter's romantic "love for Sale" into a punchy "Love for Tender" and then plays on both the financial and affectionate meanings of "tender," thus linking them.
If Costello is Dylan's analog in the current British rock scene, the Jam is the Who's. The inner sleeve of the Jam's new record, "setting Sons" (Polydor PD-1-6249), features an illustation of Brighton Beach that could be a still from the Who's movie, "Quadrophrenia." The members of the Jam began their careers wearing mod clothes like the 1964 Who and leading a mod revival.
Like the Who, the Jam plays very British rock 'n' roll, full of references that may be obscure to many Americans. And like the Who, the Jam is decidedly uninfluenced by American rhythm & blues. Their attempt to cover Martha & the Vandellas' "Heatwave" is the one embarrassment on "setting Sons."
The nine songs by guitarist-singer Paul Weller are strong enough that they should win over American audiences, however, just as Peter Townshend's have. Compared to the Who's Townshend, Weller is a stronger lyricist but a weaker composer.
But Weller's best efforts are his most poetic. "thick as Thieves" progresses from a litany of adolescent shoplifting targets to "we stole the green belt fields that made us believe." "wasteland" is a sharply etched portrait of two adolescent lovers who sneak off from a housing project to neck in bombed-out war ruins. Thoughout, Weller, bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler slam straight ahead like the early Who.