Prince and Elvis Costello share more than a frustrated desire to change their names. Both emerged in the late '70s, entered public consciousness at an age when most people are turning in their fake IDs, and proceeded to become crotchety old masters before turning even 40. (Prince is 33, Costello 38.) They're imps dangling at the end of long and varied musical traditions they know inside out, so relentlessly prolific it's their fans who get tired first. Both could stand to get out more. Both will probably never have as many fans again; both have memories on sale this Christmas.
Of course, Prince is way better. His musical range dwarfs Costello's — you'd never catch Prince rhyming "Those disco synthesizers / Those daily tranquilizers." Where Costello's role is that of provocateur — bee-sting — Prince aims for the whole enchilada: hit single, concept album, genius recluse, love man. Especially the latter — Prince makes sure you get off; Costello explains why you're frigid or can't get it up.
Prince could have released a greatest songs compilation one bootleg and eight official albums ago. By waiting so long to cash out, he's insured that the box set blah syndrome never sets in with The Hits/The B-Sides. It's too bad that you can only get the B's disc by buying the whole box, but with four new cuts and absolutely no bad songs on the two Hits volumes it's hard to fuss. Those missing great album tracks like "Sister," "Starfish and Coffee," and "Joy in Repetition" can enjoy the patch of disc one — Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," "Adore," and "Pink Cashmere" — which reenacts the rich bounty of Sign O' the Times. The new "Peach" adds classic AM power pop to Prince's endless list of genre-benders. More than anything, it was this ability to enforce his personal brushstroke over one concocted sound environment after another that made Prince the great artist of the artificial '80s.
Except for "Erotic City," which belongs in the inner circle of Prince classics, the B-Sides disc mostly includes throwaways, afterimages of the A's, recombined fragments of other songs (a Prince tradition; compare "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" with "When You Were Mine"), and such blatant sex-teases as "Feel U Up" and "Scarlet Pussy." Those who've found their interest in Prince flagging as he moved in the direction of Brian Wilson psychotic-delia will feel as if God's granted them an extra classic Prince album, filled with lots of unadorned funk. Those who like the weird shit can content themselves with the Beatles trippiness of "She's Always in My Hair," and the blues, gospel, and Broadway ruminations of the volume's final cuts.
The Costello box is iffier. With 2½ Years, Rykodisc begins what will be a series of 11 "definitive" CD reissues of the albums, reconciling different U.K. and U.S. versions, adding B-sides and outtakes. The early Costello featured on My Aim Is True (with a mediocre backing band) is a runt first tasting the microphone. He's like the Greil Marcus book Mystery Train turned into punk rock: a belligerent twitcher, named after Elvis, making Dylanesque accusations in a voice that combines The Band and Randy Newman, wearing Buddy Holly glasses (or is the model Woody Allen?). The music, oddly enough, swings more than it rocks. Ryko's version features two fine extra tunes from the My Aim sessions, "Radio Sweetheart" and "Stranger in the House," as well as even earlier, sometimes gripping juvenilia — just bitter lyrics and acoustic guitar.
This Year's Model, which marks the debut of the Attractions, is Costello's acknowledged masterpiece of this era. It takes the deep alienation hinted at on My Aim Is True ("I got this camera click-click-clicking in my head") and pumps it up, offering the finest pub punk this side of Graham Parker and the Rumour. For the new edition, Rykodisc has restored two key tracks deleted from the album's 1977 American release, "(I Don't Want To Go to) Chelsea" and "Night Rally"; the other five bonus cuts are spottier.
Recorded in March 1978 with the Attractions, Live At El Mocambo, which can only be purchased inside the 2½ Years box or by sending in coupons from each of the three studio albums, offers a chance to hear beefier versions of My Aim Is True cuts. What you lose, however, is the dance beat Costello provided in the studio with his mannered vocal shifts, that almost dandyesque way he had then of adding an extra rhythm by swinging his enunciation from dryly professorial to R&B hoarse to brutal clarity.
In retrospect, the patented Costello cynicism has dated badly: how revolutionary is a man proclaiming that "love is like a tumor" and hurling critiques of a corrupt society into the face of his girlfriend? Maybe I gravitate toward Armed Forces because it's less brilliant than This Year's Model, fuzzily cloaking jeaousy songs like "Green Shirt" in a rhetoric of militarism. (Ryko adds nine tracks, including the Kinks-ish "Sunday's Best" and a fine live solo "Accidents Will Happen.") And maybe I prefer it because this is Elvis at his skinny-tie, new-wave best, touting fat keyboards, dance tunes, and peace, love, and understanding. Almost like Prince.