Elvis Costello showed such immediate passion and skill that after just two albums in the late '70s, he was hailed as the finest rock songwriter to come out of Britain since since the '60s class of Lennon-McCartney. Ray Davies and Pete Townshend.
No one since Bob Dylan had zeroed in quite so convincingly on hypocrisy and deceit in both relationships and the social order as Costello — and no one had attacked those traits so unflinchingly.
While the flashes of verbal warfare and rage gave Costello the reputation as rock's angry young man, there were also elements of compassion and comfort in many of the early songs — as Costello acknowledged his own weaknesses and needs.
The material on those two albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, combined wicked wit and blistering observation into such compact, near sing-along formats that many early fans of Costello still look on those songs as his best work.
One of the revelations of Girls Girls Girls (Columbia) is how, in truth, Costello has grown as an artist: His work has advanced in both sophistication and insight despite what might have looked at some points in his career like artistic detours almost as puzzling as those of Neil Young and Lou Reed.
As suggested by the playful album title (taken from one of Elvis Presley's most forgettable '60s movies), many of the songs are about relationships — though Costello uses women as a convenient symbol for tales of desire and disappointment that are meant to reflect on the nature of the human character, male and female.
The songwriter is our guide on this retrospective album, not just selecting and sequencing the 47 songs on the CD version (51 songs on the much realigned cassette edition), but also reflecting in the often humorous, self-depreciating liner notes on the background of the songs.
He says 1979's tenacious "Pump It Up" was written shortly after rock's sex 'n' drugs lifestyle beckoned, adding good-naturedly, "This anti-rock 'n' roll song was my last stand before I gave in to it completely."
Rather than follow chronological order, Costello mixes selections according to mood and loose-knit themes. By following "Party Girl" with "Shabby Doll" and then "Motel Matches," for instance, Costello forces us to listen to songs with dramatically different emotional shadings in marvelously unexpected and revealing new contexts.
For much of his career, Costello released albums so fast that you wondered if he thought every idea that came into his head was worth sharing on record. The lesson of Girls Girls Girls is that, aside from some occasional obliqueness, they were worth sharing.