Last year was a very good year for Elvis Costello. He released two new albums to critical acclaim, saw three more of his early works remastered and repackaged with rare bonus tracks, filmed his first-ever concert for future DVD release, married jazz musician Diana Krall, and turned 50 years old.
Riding a wave of revitalized popularity and in support of one of his best rock albums in years, he's off to a roaring start in 2005. With three recent Grammy nominations and a highly anticipated U.S. tour underway, Costello is finding himself in the unique situation of being both one of new wave's elder statesmen and a surprisingly hot contemporary artist.
Despite his newly restored credibility, there are some who see Costello's practice of massive reissues and rapid repackaging of new material as a shameless money grab.
Both of Costello's new (and vastly different) albums were released on the same day in September 2004. Il Sogno (Deutsche Grammophon) is a classical piece based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. It became the No. 1 classical album in the first week of release, and received mostly positive reviews.
Costello also released The Delivery Man (Lost Highway). Mostly recorded in musically historical locations around the South (Memphis, Clarksdale, Nashville), The Delivery Man is a cornucopia of both old and new sounds. Relying heavily on the roots of Southern music, Costello mines the remnants of soul, country, folk and traditional rock 'n' roll. With support from Americana divas Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, and pedal steel player John McPhee, Costello and the Imposters prove that they may be one of the most diversely talented bands in the world. It's no surprise the album was nominated for two Grammys.
On the eve of Costello's American tour to promote the album, an expanded version of The Delivery Man was released. With an enhanced video preview of the tune "Bedlam" from the upcoming DVD, a bonus disc featuring five different versions of tunes from the original release, and two previously unreleased tracks, hardcore fans are in a position to either replace their original copy of The Delivery Man or live without the new material. Unless ... they buy the 10-inch vinyl version of The Clarksdale Sessions, which contains the seven tunes on the new bonus disc. Then, of course, they will still have to buy the DVD when it is released later this spring to get the live material.
This rerelease/reissue/repackaging phenomenon is consistent with an ongoing pattern that has seen multiple versions of Costello's previous releases become available, each one with more material than the one before. However, where the other reissues consist of material dating back to 1977, The Delivery Man is only six months old.
Most of Costello's catalog was initially rereleased by Rykodisk in the mid- to late 1990s, each one remastered with extra tracks added, all contained on a single disc. But since 2002, an ongoing reissue campaign has been underway from Rhino Records, in which every album is remastered (again, and presented in its original single disc form), and released in groups of three as defined by some thematic similarity. The Rhino sets also include a second disc of rare and unreleased material either recorded around the same time as the original album or thematically linked.
For the diehard Costello fan, the Rhino sets are a gold mine of great material, loaded with cuts that previously would have required spending a small fortune on hard-to-find imports or risky bootlegs to obtain. However, the expanded Delivery Man package is a bit different, and reactions are mixed. Coming so quickly on the heels of the initial release and containing only five slightly different versions, plus a couple of new tracks, the release has created a dissonance among those who bought the first version right out of the chute. Will the practice affect future sales? It's hard to tell, but one thing is for sure: Costello fans want whatever they can get, and while they may grumble about how it is delivered, they usually capitulate.