Elvis CostelloElvis Costello
Album: Unfaithful Music & Soundtrack Album
Label: Universal
Tracks: 38

This well-stocked and well-presented two-disc set is a compilation, another compilation (I hear you groan), but it's a compilation par excellence, and one which gets closer to the man and his music than many a cursorily-collated compilation has done in the past. For a start, it's been selected and assembled by the man himself (always a good thing!); and in doing so, he's carefully configured the narrative of the songs to provide a conscious, purposeful soundtrack to the book of the same name, a lavish, detailed (if necessarily opinionated) 670-page memoir-cum-autobiography due out in tandem. Another important point about the release is that it's not just another parade of greatest hits/best of tracks, but a collection that celebrates both his songwriting genius and his ability to pursue almost any musical field or idiom he wishes in the service of the songs, at the same time often paying direct homage to his musical and literary inspirations by unerringly reinventing the past (and indeed the present, come to that!) in his own image.

The pair of previously unreleased tracks that close the collection place in relief and sharply in focus the opposite ends of the spectrum of Costello's performance skills; his real gift for collaboration with other artists (here demonstrated on April 5th, a joint composition as well as a trio performance with Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson, from 2008) and the intimate and compelling nature of his completely solo (straight vox-and-guitar) performances (represented by I Can't Turn It Off, a very early - 1975 - demo). Each of the selections is deliberately linked to a particular episode or reminiscence within the memoir, which could either be a springboard or spark-off point for a song which might be a completely new discovery, or else afford the opportunity for us to renew acquaintance with, or give rise to a fresh perspective on, a familiar song. Even the Costello aficionado will find much to challenge or illuminate - and perhaps also infuriate - in the consideration of these perspectives and juxtapositions, while there's never any doubt that his work needs to be taken seriously and that his contribution to the wider world of popular music is as immense as his music is genuinely encyclopaedic, magpie, chameleon, genre-hopping, crossover, boundary-straddling, however you might term it and invariably also much more.

Broad-brush terms such as pop, indie, rock, contemporary classic and country have even less significance for all that they are thrown up as pigeonholes - and of course Costello's intense, clever, literate, astute, politically conscious, blindingly poetic and ever-inventive "hey, why didn't I think of that?!" wordplay both sets the highest of benchmarks and continues the tradition of songsmithery with the production of any number of songs that are already being regarded as standards: several of which are inevitably included on this set but with the additional insights that are afforded by the connections with the memoir. Following on from its 19 audio tracks, the second CD presents a separate four-and-a-half-minute track containing three exclusive "audiobook sketches" that do not appear in the main published memoir. These form a valuable appendix, and, in order to inform and assist the purchaser further, the accompanying 28-page booklet includes the complete song lyrics, recording source and discographical credits, amongst which are scattered significant quotes from the memoir itself and a host of photographs, many previously unseen and several from the MacManus family album. All in all, then, a worthwhile addition to the Costello discography, proving both exhaustive and inexhaustible even for the fan who (supposedly) has it all…

David Kidman