Of course there are far more Elvis Costello compilations on the shelves than are strictly necessary, and given that throughout his lengthy and relatively productive career he has frequently thrown his fans a curve-ball, there’s never going to be a compilation that captures the full-scope of his career to date, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. There are several that have tried of course, but none of them have resulted in a genuinely pleasing listening experience.
Things is, Elvis Costello has done too much, for too long, and has been too diverse. If you love his post-punk singer / songwriter material, there’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy his collaborations with Burt Bacharach, or the Brodsky Quartet, and so on. In recent years he’s become even more wilfully diverse and challenging his fans to keep up with him. Of course, while there are certain ultra-loyal fans that will follow Costello regardless of where his muse takes him, there will also be those of us that just want to hear his pop hits, the singles that made him a household name from the first decade of his career. This is who this compilation is aimed at, those of us that want Elvis Costello the pop star, without having to wade through his more difficult ‘mature’ material. We can save that for later.
Of course, just because a musician’s career sees them transcending commercial pop music, doesn’t mean that they’ve got nothing more to offer. Indeed, it could be argued that pop music is by its very nature the most disposable and least enduring form of popular song. Costello’s pop hits were considerably more cerebral and substantial than the majority of acts of the era could manage, however that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t ultimately feel the need to take a step away from the ultra-competitive world of the pop-charts and indulge his interest in developing the less accessible aspects of his song writing talent. In other words, Costello has never been less than interesting, even when his music was wilfully uncommercial. He’s done pretty much what he wanted, when he wanted, and that’s not always a bad thing.
This compilation is purpose-tooled to appeal to the fair-weather fan then. It’s 22 of Elvis Costello’s most popular tunes from the most popular phase of a long and distinguished career. His brilliant way with words is firmly front and centre throughout, and his on again / off again backing band, The Attractions, give sterling support pretty much throughout. If I have a quibble it’s that maybe, given Costello’s own admission that Robert Wyatt’s version was by far and away superior to his own, Costello’s version of “Shipbuilding” should have been omitted in favour of adding Wyatt’s considerably more emotive and genuine version as a bonus track. Okay, so it may have been a clumsy move, but it would have very much been in keeping with Costello’s perceived ‘awkwardness’ that he has cultivated throughout his career. Who knows, maybe that was the plan, but it was dismissed by the various record labels and managers, but it would have been a n utterly brilliant move if he could have pulled it off.
In a career which has seen it’s fair share of detours, collaborations, hit singles, critical acclaim and loyal fans, this simple and effective compilation may very well be the only primer into Elvis Costello’s career that the rest of us will ever need.