[2 April 2008]
Usually there is an impetus for an album re-release, be it refined sound quality, new bonus material, a supplemental live recording, or simply that it’s a kick-ass album that deserves another shot at attracting a wider audience. Sometimes an album can fit all of these criteria and still fall flat in trying to substantiate its existence. Hip-O’s newest Elvis Costello two-disc deluxe edition marks the third time that This Year’s Model has been expanded. And while it offers a whole new live recording, something that Rhino’s 2002 release did not, the physical product turns out to be nonetheless redundant and somewhat underwhelming.
Don’t get me wrong; the deluxe edition is more than adequate for new listeners who are willing to shell out the $25 to hear This Year’s Model for the first time. And if this was a review of the original material, it could go on for days—from the riveting, open-highway jam of “No Action” to Costello reaching sweet vocal crescendos on the tender ballad “Little Triggers.” Then of course there’s “Pump It Up”, with its pounding bass drums and a chugging rhythm section that refuses to fatigue. And there’s the persistent, sing-along quickie “You Belong To Me.” Overall, This Year’s Model is one of the best albums of the 1970s. It features Costello in his lyrical prime, writing effective, instantly classic pop-rock music with the same penchant to please as his stellar debut. But this isn’t a review of the original album. And there are several problems worth noting in Hip-O’s re-release.
First, the majority of the bonus tracks and rarities featured here were already released on the Rhino expansion pack as a second disc. On this edition, Hip-O opts to place them on the same disc as the original album, which in my book is a serious no-no. Part of acknowledging an album’s classic status is to leave the original track list relatively untouched in its expanded form. Adding additional material is absolutely fine, but please don’t put it on the same CD.
The completely new material on this album comes from a live 1978 concert of Costello and the Attractions recorded in Washington DC. The band mixes tracks from This Year’s Model and My Aim Is True with a standard swagger and tenacity. While the album as a whole might not do as much justice to the band’s live sound as Live at the El Mocambo, it does, however, include some excellent live renditions of early favorites “Miracle Man” and “Blame It On Cain.” The concert concludes with the faux serenade of “Chemistry Class,” whose line about “the final solution” still sounds really bizarre. When it all comes to an end, an audience member yells “You son of a bitch!” And frankly, it’s hard to tell whether the exclamation is out of satisfaction or disappointment.
This deluxe edition seems to be marketed toward die-hard Costello fans, but it’s questionable that it will satisfy even a casual collector. In addition to the prior availability of most of the music, it also leaves out Costello’s personal liner notes, something that made the Rhino release so enticing. But there seems to be another factor at play here: the elevated standards of collectors items. In a generation where physical albums are already precious due to the monopoly of online music, box sets and expansion discs have a heightened responsibility. Buyers expect as much out of the packaging and accessories as they do of the supplemental recordings. Full-length posters and crucial liner notes have become practically the norm. In a way, record companies are faced with the impossible task of making a mass-produced product look one-of-a-kind. This may be too much to ask for, but when you’re dealing with a piece of music that was put together with so much passion and creative energy, you can’t help but expect the same attention to detail of its re-release.