If an expanded, remastered, generously annotated reissue of Elvis Costello's landmark debut, My Aim Is True, sounds familiar, it should: Rykodisc oversaw a heralded Costello reissue program just eight years ago, when the label put out all of Costello's Columbia recordings, right through 1986's Blood & Chocolate. Costello, however, is a rare example of a talent with business savvy — even as a callow youth (he turned 22 the month My Aim was released). Having maintained control over his recordings, Costello has moved them on again.
Rhino's program boasts noticeably more vibrant remixes, abundant notes from the artist, and a full disc of extras with each of the originals. As conceived by Mr. MacManus, they'll appear in three-title installments, grouped thematically. Bunch one — My Aim, 1989's Spike, and 1996's All This Useless Beauty — is made up of his more eclectic efforts.
"Diverse" is an apt characterization for My Aim Is True, which came out when the punk and New Wave movements were ascendant, and can be fairly characterized as the world's only transitional debut album. In retrospect, particularly after examining the demo-heavy bonus disc, it's apparent that Costello's versatility and musical curiosity would have allowed him to venture in any of a number of directions. The fiery fellow who quickly rose to the top oldie Angry Young Man heap is front and center on the four alternate takes that don't appear on the Ryko reissue, particularly in an early version of "No Action" (a blazing highlight from 1978's This Year's Model) and a scathing live version of "Less Than Zero" — the "Dallas version," in which Costello switches in Lee Harvey Oswald for Brit fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. But "Cheap Reward," an early rendering of "Lip Service," comes out as a honky-tonk lament, while solo demos of "Jump Up" and "Poison Moon" reveal that, had Costello emerged just a few years earlier, Columbia may have tried to position him as the next Paul Simon... or Jim Croce, perhaps. History might have been different.
While most of the My Aim extras have surfaced before, the new versions of Spike and All This Useless Beauty each serve up a surplus of demos and oddities. Probably the most commercially successful of Costello's Warner Bros. releases (thanks in part to the attention drawn to his collaborations with Paul McCartney), Spike benefits greatly from a punchier remix, while the dozen demos on the bonus disc provide an opportunity to appreciate the intricacies of Costello's tricky wordplay. Of particular interest is a cover of "You're No Good." Costello made no secret of his scorn for Linda Ronstadt's cover of his "Alison"; here he takes a song that Ronstadt revived with great success and strips it to its rhythmic skeleton.
The sleeper of the three is All This Useless Beauty. Costello's WB swan song, it caused little stir when it first hit the racks. Anchored in songs written for other artists, including Roger McGuinn, June Tabor, and Johnny Cash, Beauty is ambitious without overreaching (Costello periodically strays too far afield). Again, the remix brings out new colors. This bonus disc is the best of the three, thanks to demos of "The Comedians" (written for Roy Orbison's last album) and "World's Great Optimist" (one of two Aimee Mann collaborations here), and rarities featuring the Fairfield Four, Brian Eno, and Tricky.