As Rhino's long-running reissue campaign winds down, it's fitting that three of Elvis Costello's most misunderstood and unappreciated albums are among the last to be chosen, like awkward, chubby kids waiting to get picked for kickball. It's a testament to Costello's commitment to the project and Rhino's skill at repackaging that these expanded, double-disc collections give all three records a more stable home in his catalog.
That said, Goodbye Cruel World remains the most inessential disc of Costello's career, a point he concedes in the liner notes by saying that it "is probably the worst record I could have made of a decent bunch of songs." Thanks to the gratuitous use of new synthesizer technology and other poor production choices, some of Costello's most underrated songs--"Joe Porterhouse" and "The Deportees Club" among them--become more dated with each listen. Skip straight to the bonus disc where demo/better versions of several of the cuts appear, along with an early pass at the Blood & Chocolate standout "I Hope You're Happy Now."
Almost Blue and Kojak Variety, on the other hand, do better with a bit of distance. A decade (Kojak Variety) or two (Almost Blue) later, you can see that they are two sterling examples of his genuine love for music and record collecting and his ambitious but occasionally flawed attempts to consummate the relationship.
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Costello's sojourn into country covers with Almost Blue is right in his wheelhouse, Billy Sherrill's countrypolitan production burnishing moods and melodies that appear on virtually every other album he ever recorded. Kojak Variety is a bit more problematic, with its track list of (mostly) obscure covers played by an eclectic band that includes avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot. The extra disc adds a few more recognizable tunes (The Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," for one) to the mix, but for the most part, it continues down the same less-traveled road as the original. Which makes it possibly the most quintessential Elvis Costello album: a grab bag of styles and songs brought back to life simply because he loved them. Some may still consider it a misstep, but rest assured, his aim is true.