Just another Costello compilation? I should coco. At first glance, this might look like an extravagant exercise in gaining more mileage out of the crafty bugger's extensive back catalogue. The preposterously titled Girls + £ + Girls = $ & Girls comes in three formats. Forty seven songs on the CD, 51 on the cassette, 31 on the record — 65 different songs in total.
But that's not all. As Costello points out in the accompanying notes, these songs have been arranged in four parts so as to try and tell a number of different stories. He leaves the listener to make what they will of each section. "The deciding factor in making these choices," he writes, "is contained in the obscure arithmetic of the title, although I must caution against taking it too seriously, unless you are considering a career in the legal profession."
Confused? You will be. Everyone's first question should be, "Is the old rascal taking the piss?" This, of course, is highly possible. Costello has, over the years, been evasive and even openly hostile to the critical dissection of his work and the bluff generalizing that goes with it. On the connections within his sprawling song tapestry, Costello has remained cagey. Wisdom teeth have been more easily drawn. Those intrepid music hacks who have attempted to pothole through his huge body of work have emerged looking pretty damn foolish. David Gouldstone's recent inept study of Elvis's lyrics (Costello: A Man Out Of Time), should serve as a deterrent to any foolhardy archaeologist.
It seems highly unlikely, therefore, that Costello himself should wish to unravel his own knots. When he talks of arranging these songs into chapters, one wonders how deeply his tongue is entrenched in his cheek. One wonders whether the playful concept of this collection is merely a way of justifying the second Costello anthology in three years, The Best Of Elvis Costello: The Man having been issued by Demon in 1986.
Whatever the reasons, Girls + £ + Girls = $ & Girls is perhaps as close to a definitive Costello compilation as we could hope for. As one plays with the permutations, it becomes clear that Costello is at least partly serious when he talks of the systematic arrangement of these songs. Take Side Four of the cassette format which chronicles the corruption and decay of Thatcher's Eighties. His more blatant and acerbic political/social designs ("Oliver's Army," "Pills And Soap," "Night Rally" and "Shipbuilding") are set against some of his more metaphorical timebombs ("American Without Tears," 'Watch Your Step," "Clubland" and "Suit Of Lights"). It's not all so clearly devised though. On the vinyl option, the George Jones-inspired "Stranger In The House" is mysteriously squeezed between "Pills And Soap" and "Clubland." Are we expected to sort out the red herrings, too? Are we even expected to burrow deep for allusions and hidden signs? If so, then this is a whole lot weirder than I first imagined and Costello has enough space in his attic to park a large tractor.
Let's take Side Two of the vinyl version. Here, Costello gathers together his speculations on the vagaries and vanities of love, from "Man Out Of Time" and "Brilliant Mistake" to "Green Shirt" and "Beyond Belief." Love affairs badly acted, murdered, blood-splattered, imagined, ulcerated and unbuttoned. Nobody writes soap operas like Elvis.
Of course, when Costello sings about being in love he knows, better than most, that the sun does not always shine and one's hat does not always lie straight. Side Three of the record offers "Alison," "Indoor Fireworks," "Party Girl," "Almost Blue," "Riot Act," "Poisoned Rose," "I Want You" and "I'll Wear It Proudly," eight of the most perceptive songs about being in love, nearly in love or not being in love in the entire pop canon.
And so on. Locate the end of the thread and find your way to the spool, with a little help from Elvis. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn't. Whatever his motives might be, Costello has assembled a corking compilation, which prompts the listener to bring a new curiosity to these songs. Perhaps he feels taken for granted and this is a way of making us pay attention once again. Perhaps, like Lou Reed, he has decided that he's been writing the Great Novel all along, chapter by chapter. God only knows. One thing's for sure, Girls Girls Girls is one hell of a bingo hall.