Profound statement concerning the history of Anglo-American popular music since the "second British invasion." Lament that synthesizers and monotone vocalists have taken the oomph out of rock 'n' roll. Thankful relief that through this dark age, Elvis Costello has remained and thrived. Labelling of Costello as the songwriter of his generation. Gushy announcement that 47 of his songs are now out in a new collection. Celebratory epithet.
Did you ever want a radio station that played nothing but Elvis Costello? Did you ever want to go to buy 10 or so of his cassettes from the 112th Street vendor? Afraid of the filler that confronts the Costello-listener about halfway through many second sides of his records? Concerned about warping? Not enough dough for an FCC license? Already a big fan and collector, but don't want to rebuild your whole Costello meschpuchah on CD?
Profound meaning in Costello's work can't be found in Girls, Girls, Girls, eyen though the selections are hand-picked by Elvis himself and span his recording career from 1977's My Aim Is True through 1986's Blood and Chocolate. He has been compiled before, in two greatest hits collections and at least one compendium of B-sides and obscure recordings. Rare tracks aren't emphasized here, nor is any sense of codification or canon-forging. These are not all his greatest — among others, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Radio, Radio" are absent. And this is no The Elvis Costello Story — the tracks are non-chronological and their placement amongst one another gives no sense of history or development. What it is is something wonderful: a collection whose song order takes months of listening to memorize. Surprise is guaranteed in perpetuity; it's the gift that keeps on giving.
Instrumentation and lyrical poses on the collection vary, but his voice remains remarkably consistent — listening is like walking in and out of differently decorated rooms in the same house. Hearing that silly "Pump It Up" organ in his late-early-middle-early-middle period right next to the bare guitar laments of his early-late-middle-late period ("Brilliant Mistake," "Uncomplicated"), the same nasal, British howl turns up. All Elvis eras are present: the near Clash-dom of early, Nick Lowe-produced songs, including "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" with Mick Jones on guitar; the manic, organ-drenched "Temptation" and "This Year's Girl;" the textures of Imperial Bedroom's "Man Out of Time" and "Beyond Belief;" the percussive piano of Trust's "Strict Time" and "Clubland;" the brassy social conscience of "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap;" the vulnerability of "Indoor Fireworks" and "I Want You."
Lyrically, coyness has defined Costello all along, remaining simultaneously vague and catchy ("While I speak double-dutch to a real double dutchess"). I thought I had "Alison" figured out until Girls, Girls, Girls came around — now I have this suspicion that he wants to murder her ("Sometimes I think I better put out the big light / 'Cause I can't stand to see you this way"). Anger in Costello's lyrics is both appealingly Clash-like for tough kids and unsettlingly compelling for cerebral ones. This range allows Girls, Girls, Girls some breathing room — it need not show an evolution like The Best of... seemed to try to do.
Rather than be sincere and self-important, Costello and Columbia Records have chosen the coy route: retro title, zippy, unpredictable song order and pithy liner notes (by Elvis) which explain only a lyric here, a keyboard solo there (on "Mystery Dance," "Mr. [Nick] Lowe ran a drumstick down the keys, while I banged away wherever my fingers fell"). The notes are appropriately understated in this way — you come away informed but not saturated.