He came out of nowhere at the height of the punk rock revolution, a bundle of nerves, his glasses and clenched knees suggesting a mixture of humor and fury. In the anything-goes spirit of the times, he took his grandmother's last name and the King's first name and became Elvis Costello. It was a moniker, he later acknowledged, that sounded like a dare.
Which turned out to be appropriate: After his first three albums became virtually synonymous with the punk rock/new wave movement, Elvis Costello has gone on to build a career out of musical daring, fearlessly exploring the worlds of pop, soul, country, jazz and classical, collaborating with everyone from Paul McCartney to Burt Bacharach to the Chieftains.
"He is the Beatles for me," says Gary Stewart, a vice president for Rhino Records. "I've followed him on every twist and turn and liked all of it — and had my musical tastes expanded in the process."
Those twists and turns are at the heart of Rhino's ambitious plan to commemorate the first 20 years of Costello's career by reissuing 18 of his albums, thematically rather than chronologically. Hearing the first three reissues together — the 1977 debut My Aim Is True, 1989's Spike and 1996's All This Useless Beauty — one can see a man getting more and more comfortable with traversing the musical globe.
"I didn't want people to treat these like the annuals [additions] to an encyclopedia," Stewart says of his company's approach. "I also think that there are stories to tell. There is a pattern you'll see on the three discs. This [part of the reissue] is what I call his 'artist in residence' side, [featuring] more intricate musical textures, more dense lyrical passages, more sophistication."
Buy one, get one free
The Rhino reissues feature something else as well: each CD has a bonus disc, which contains demos, outtakes and extras from the time period covered by each album.
Rykodisc Records performed a similar function when they reissued Aim in 1994, but that company placed the whole package on a single disc, which meant any extras were determined by the amount of free space at the end.
"We thought very consciously about what we could do top [the Rykodisc reissue]," Stewart says. "First of all, the sound quality we were able to achieve massively surpasses any previous incarnation," for which Stewart credits Rhino producer Bill Inglot. "I knew we would upgrade the sound, but I didn't think we would upgrade it that much.
"Secondly, [the extra disc] gives the bonus material its own day in the sun. Songs like 'Jump Up' or 'Imagination Is A Powerful Deceiver' were buried at the end of the Rykodisc version. That's no way to treat a fine recording of a composition, to stuff it and mount it at the end of a record. People are noticing the songs now."
Taken as a whole, the two-disc sets provide an fascinating look at the evolution of Costello's songwriting. Costello's early compositions employ wordplay and chord structures reminiscent of Randy Newman or Hoagy Carmichael, at a time when admission to such fancies was tantamount to treason. But if one can't exactly hear the Sex Pistols' sound on My Aim Is True, one can certainly see Costello embracing the straightforward simplicity that was the tenor of the time. (Ironically, one of the standout tracks on Aim was a ballad, the tough yet tender "Alison.")
A decade later, Costello — free of his longtime backing band the Attractions — experimented with different sounds on the elaborately constructed Spike. Costello sang about senility (the subject of his hit "Veronica"), interactive television and dancing on Margaret Thatcher's grave, while Irish musicians rubbed elbows with New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Paul McCartney's bass sat comfortably alongside the 12-string sound of ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn.
Spike marked the happy beginning of Costello's association with Warner Bros. Records; 1996's All This Useless Beauty marked the acrimonious end.
Beauty and bonuses
To put the years in perspective: Between Spike and Beauty, Costello had recorded with string quartets, gospel singers, jazz combos, Burt Bacharach and his beloved Attractions, while singing on tribute albums to Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus and The X-Files. He'd written songs for Johnny Cash, Aaron Neville and "Soul Man" Sam Moore. (Some of these songs turn up on the Beauty bonus disc, which Stewart acknowledges "would make a great record in its own right.")
While all this was going on, Costello recalls in Beauty's liner notes, "Record companies were being devoured like cold shrimp on a lukewarm buffet." Creative forces and market forces were on a collision course; the result, Stewart suggests, "was a record that showed him at the peak of his powers, released into a market that was apathetic for no reason other than timing."
Which offers another reason behind Stewart's decision to re-issue the Costello catalog out of sequence. "I want people to have a chance with great albums that were unjustly — or in a fan's term, criminally — ignored.
"I didn't want the first three records to come out and have them coast on the archetypal [Attractions] sound," Stewart adds. "I want to show Elvis as an artist with different facets."
The main Attractions
The "archetypal Attractions sound" will actually take center stage in early 2002, when Rhino plans to reissue the 1978 classic This Year's Model, along with 1986's Blood and Chocolate and 1994's Brutal Youth.
"People are finally taking a look at Elvis Costello, the artist with a wide music vocabulary and a 25-year career," says Stewart. I think he is cursed by having too many good songs. We want to do what we can to keep him from being penalized for that."