If Elvis Costello isn't the greatest rock singer/songwriter of the 1980s — and there's a strong case to be made that he is — then he's surely the most prolific. Costello has managed to release one or two lengthy albums a year and still have plenty of tracks left over to stick on singles, some under his usual moniker, some under a variety of ridiculous rotating pseudonyms (the Imposter, Napoleon Dynamite, etc.). By 1980 — only three years after the start of his recording career — Costello had stockpiled so many of these singles, B-sides, sound-track cuts and other non-LP rarities that he did collectors a favor and gathered 20 tracks onto a compilation album, Taking Liberties. Now, the busy Englishman has finally updated us on the collectibles of the intervening years with an amusingly titled follow-up, Out of Our Idiot, featuring 17 songs on album or cassette and a whopping 21 tracks on compact disc (chock full at 71 minutes). This collection is widely available in local stores as a reasonably priced English import. (It's unlikely to be released in America, since Costello is between record labels here; after a decade with Columbia, he starts work in May on his first album for Warner Bros. with producer T Bone Burnett.)
Though these outtakes never made it onto Costello albums before, most aren't goofs by any means, and at least a few songs can stand alongside his best. Among them is "Heathen Town," a devastatingly witty moralist/outsider's view of Los Angeles ("They used to call it Sin City / Now it's gone way past that," it begins; "I used to be God-fearing / Now I'm so frightened..."). Also essential is his duet with T Bone Burnett on the upbeat "People's Limousine," which combines politics, art, sex and Roman myth for a country song as tuneful and confusingly intellectual as any you've ever heard. Elsewhere, Costello duets with Jimmy Cliff ("Seven-Day Weekend") and Nick Lowe ("Baby It's You"), covers songs by Yoko Ono and Richard Thompson, unearths obscure country and R&B chestnuts and offers alternate versions of two previously recorded compositions (including a pumped-up Memphis soul version of "Blue Chair"). Those who usually find Costello too cryptic and dry can relish these less self-conscious moments when, freed from the weight of seriousness that accompanies album-making, he and his players break loose and have a load of fun. Those who relish his acerbic lyrical genius still have plenty to wade through, too. Only an idiot would dare pass it up.