The man as opposed to the myth presumably, although there were a number of occasions during these last eight years when the one did seam fairly indistinguishable from the other. The underlying problem, of course, was that whatever Elvis the songwriter was to communicate at any one time inevitably became coloured with and eventually overwhelmed by whatever Elvis the man was getting up to on stage, in the quote-hungry press, in the generally painful process of growing up and getting hurt in public.
Thus, each and every calling card now seems inextricably linked up with its very own setting, with My Aim Is True, for example, conjuring up all sorts of images of lovestruck bitterness and revenge; the crucial Armed Forces bringing back bittersweet memories of the growing storm clouds in Thatcher's Britain; or Almost Blue, the most obvious example of how a Costello album gradually assumed a territoriality all of its own, being forever referred to as Elvis's country album, as if it were a sort of difficult phase the poor boy was going through.
The most immediate advantage of this superb compilation, then, is that it automatically blasts away such a restrictive atmosphere of time and place, and instead launches an all-out attack on the listener via non-stop selection of 18 songs, set out in no particular chronological order, and with no apparent consideration given to mass popular appeal. So it is, for example, that the still magnificent after all these years swing of "Oliver's Army" is suddenly followed by the plaintive, harrowing opening bars of "Alison," a piece of work that most other writers would quite happily retire on.
Again, the stark tones of "Pills And Soap" have scarcely left the memory bank before the first smartarse couplet of "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" shocks you back into remembering just how barbed and perfectly pitched the Costello wit could be at a time when we needed it most. And as for the truly pathetic "I Wanna Be Loved" ushering in the spine-chilling "Shipbuilding," well, somebody up there certainly understands that politics does not end outside the bedroom door.
The net result of all this splendid monkeying about with the back catalogue is to leave you in a fairly advanced state of shock. Firstly. that Costello, never really recognised as a master of the pop form, had such a glaringly obvious grasp of melody and dynamics, and secondly, that the actual lyrical content of every song featured here still seems so perfectly bang on target even now. The aforementioned "Oliver's Army" and the definitive "Shipbuilding" aside, the seriously underrated "New Amsterdam" is perhaps the finest example here of this coming together of two traditionally exclusive modes of excellence, with some of the sharpest wordplay you're over likely to hear being allied to a melody that is glorious.
But it should just be mentioned in parting that Elvis Costello is obviously the sort of workaholic who inspires widely different gut reactions oven among his most committed admirers. Thus, despite this determinedly catholic selection, which manages to include such relatively small-league stuff as "Green Shirt" and "New Lace Sleeves" there is still bound to be squeals of dismay at the absence of, oh, no "Radio, Radio," "This Year's Girl," "No Action," "Red Shoes" and about 250 others.
What there is, however, is more than enough to keep most folk happy and to ensure that the first major chapter in a rather brilliant career is given a decent and dignified epitaph. To cause such a stir the first time round it was clear that we are dealing with a potentially major talent. To still sound so absolutely valid and sure-footed some eight years on is just final proof that Elvis Costello is indeed a master craftsman.