I didn't like Spike, Costello's last proper album (this being a collection of songs from 1976-86 which was released last year and which, for some bizarre reason, we're only reviewing now). It sounded to me like the work of a man well past his peak artistically but still enough craftsmanship left to write "clever songs." More than anything, it sounded like Costello trying to do something new and so it's much lauded diversity was really a desperate attempt to make the record interesting.
Girls on the other hand, is the documentary of Costello's journey to that state and at least two thirds of it is worth selling your mother for. Some songs, particularly the early ones have dated badly. "Watching the Detectives," for example, or "Girls Talk" are too New Wave, too Pub Rock and "New Amsterdam" sees Elvis as a very annoying wordsmith. "Pump It Up," however, is still brilliant. "Scrawled in an amphetamine and vodka frenzy" he says and who would disagree?
Costello's strength always lay in his treatment of existing styles (like his delves into country or soul) where he used to recover the impetus for the originals. When he hits the rock 'n' roll vein for example as "Mystery Dance" or "Honey Are You Straight (Or Are You Blind)" he finds the darkness that originally existed in that music rather than paying dull homage like Texas or U2 do. Now, sadly, Costello's exploration of other musics is too technique based, too smug. One wonders if he could again write anything as light and beguiling as "Lovable" without cramming it full of gimmicks.
Elsewhere, there are the highs of "Hope You're Happy Now" and "Red Shoes" and the (beautiful) lows of "Poor Napoleon" and "Man Out Of Time." The last song is "Sleep Of The Just" which like Spike's only great song, "Tramp The Dirt Down," sees Costello couching his bitterness in a beautiful musical arrangement. For this and "Poor Napoleon" I could forgive him almost anything. But I shouldn't have to. Songs of Love and Hate.