From the recent movie and novel High Fidelity to this year’s award winning book of poetry entitled Radio Radio, Elvis Costello has been vaulted into the heady realm of highbrow pop reference. Yet I recently saw the author of that very same book of poetry pick up This Year’s Model at a party and remark snidely, “Let’s put this one on and watch the room clear out.”
So what has happened? The angry, bespectacled one has become an alt-cred-garnering reference but passé in practice. What about all those kids who never heard “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea”, all those kids who weren’t even born until after 1980 but who spend their time listening to pop punk outfits like Blink 182 or Sum 41? Those bands would not inhabit such a tidy and profitable subgenre without E.C.’s unflinching dedication to both beauty and bile.
I’m not saying that the kids should be required to study the roots (whatever that means — someone in a record store in Iowa City once said it to me when I asked for a copy of Camper Van Beethoven’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart), but I imagine that some of them might want to, if only because they might hear something startlingly true in the music, something that just feels right.
That’s how it felt to me when I first came upon Elvis Costello sometime in 1989 — middle school for me. “Veronica”, a song he wrote with Paul McCartney, was in regular rotation on MTV. There was this small man wearing a neat brown suit and thick glasses, staring the camera down, bearing his teeth while all the time the most blissful pop chimed and jangled around him. I liked that his eyebrows arched over the rim of his glasses. I liked that there was an additional vocal track to the video, so that you could hear him spitting out “Veronica” over and against the familiar pre-recorded track. I liked that he stared at the camera and didn’t smile. To my 13-year-old mind that meant that he cared in some absolute, incommunicable way — so much that it hurt him, even.
That was over 10 years ago, and even then he’d already been at it for at least another 15. I did it the hard way, buying my way backwards all the way to My Aim is True. Each time it was new, like strata peeling back to more and more basic, elemental forms. Now, Rhino records has saved you the effort by compiling what they call “The First Collection to Span the Entire Career (So Far) of Modern Rock’s Most Acclaimed Singer-Songwriter.”
The most appealing aspect of this compilation is that it is not in chronological order. For those of us who know most of the songs already, it is a novelty to hear “Green Shirt” and “Pills & Soap” (from Armed Forces in 1979 and Punch the Clock in 1983, respectively) followed by the achingly beautiful “Tramp the Dirt Down” from his 1989 album Spike. It’s like endless shuffle, and it’s fun to listen without knowing what’s coming next. Newcomers to E.C.’s music will be thankful for the wide representation of styles and will be saved the effort and confusion of sorting it all out. It is true, however, that hearing the songs in more or less random order really brought home not just the range of E.C’s style, but also the uniformity of it. He can go anywhere he wants, from mournful melodic to searingly angry to orchestrated, almost classical pieces, and yet it’s as unmistakably his as those hornrims he can’t quite give up. It’s still that raw voice, still that penchant for rollicking piano and soaring melody and ringing guitar, still those bitingly insightful lyrics.
But then again the independent station WHPK in Chicago recently spent all of it’s weekly late-night show “Radio Dada” on E.C., with about the same range and the same shuffling effect, and I enjoyed that heartily without paying over 20 bucks for the dubious privilege of hearing all the same songs in the same order over and over.
Which is, of course, the problem with all Best Of compilations; and despite the hopeful Very modifier this is still just a Best Of collection, with all the attendant difficulties. People who know E.C’s work well will not find much new here besides the novelty of the order and the satisfaction of hearing one or two cuts off of albums you may have missed in his sprawling career. Neither are there any surprises in terms of representation: “Alison”, “Oliver’s Army”, “Radio Radio”, “Watching the Detectives” and so forth are at this point obligatory inclusions, even though they were already featured on Rykodisc’s compilation The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. The only variation comes from the inclusion of later, less well known albums like Spike and Mighty Like a Rose and of course his most recent reincarnation as Burt Bacharach’s scrappy but soulful sidekick (or is it the other way around?).
The album does include two tracks never before included on a Costello album, (“She” from the movie Notting Hill and “This Day is Done”, with the Fairfield Four, both previously released on the soundtrack album and the Fairfield Four album, respectively). However, unlike the Rykodisc re-releases of albums like My Aim is True and This Year’s Model, there are no bonus tracks of previously unreleased demos or live performances to satisfy the obsessed-for-more ear of the longtime fan. Most notable in this subgenre is the Live at El Mocambo CD that accompanied the box set — a truly intimate and thrilling recording from 1979, with a newspaper clipping insert describing how Toronto fans risked frostbite waiting for hours in a line around the block. You can hear in their voices how well it was worth it, and his performance of what are at this point well-warn classics is as passionate and snarling and fresh as it could only have been at that precise moment in time. I think what those of us who weren’t around from the beginning are hungry for is a taste of that intimacy, a flicker of how it might have felt to discover him just as the world was discovering him. Now the world has assimilated him, and although his influence is deserved, this compilation may be an all-too-tidy attempt to short cut what was fun in the first place: the discovery.