Twenty-two videos for about a buck apiece, and as the ads say, "Many never before seen on MTV." When you combine this with the fact that the featured artist is probably the most interesting rock star of the past decade, The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions is a bargain, a must-have, a major event. Or maybe I feel this way only because the music is so damn great. You could play "Oliver's Army" behind Duran Duran's "Girls on Film" video and it would still be a moving experience. (Actually, I suppose "Pump It Up" would make better accompaniment for "Girls on Film.")
Over the course of these chronologically shuffled videos, Costello shifts back and forth between his early-period, pigeon-toed Avenging Dork persona and his latter-day, intellectual Smoothie Crooner image. Apparently it's hard to find a visual equivalent to his knotty language. In fact, the best-known directors — Chuck Staler, Allen Arkush — fare worst, coming up with literal-minded stuff that attempts to locate plot lines in Costello's convoluted, punning scenarios. Pop music is supposed to be so primitive, so simple-minded, yet this cassette proves you can't reduce it to High Concept.
Only once do form and content coincide. In 1983's "I Wanna Be Loved" (director's credit to "The Rich Kids"), Costello stares glumly at the camera as a tape of the song is played. Very occasionally, he half-heartedly sings along with himself for a line or two; it's as if we've caught him listening to an unseen radio. But as he stares at us balefully, various people enter the frame to give him quick kisses on the cheek. Costello never turns to look at them — all sorts of men, women, and children — as they peck and vanish. He just groans "I wanna be loved" once in a while. I never liked the song until I saw this clip. Its effect is extraordinary: desolating, scary, and witty all at the same time, precisely what Costello achieves on his best records. Too bad he never made a video for "Alison."