Almost Blue is the album here with the greatest commercial success. In 1981 New Wave fans were stunned when Elvis Costello went to Nashville to do an LP of honky-tonk music. Imagine what country fans must have thought when they compared these tentative-if-well-meaning versions to the classic originals. For those of us on the rock side who followed Costello's tribute to his heroes, Almost Blue crossed the line we hadn't imagined had been drawn, revealing the harsh bigotry of our ignorance. It probably isn't stretching a point to claim that alt-country wouldn't have happened without this record opening the minds of a lot of alternative-rock fans.
Costello hadn't yet learned to inhabit this kind of music, so listening today, we hear reverence, some mildly interesting arrangements and a lot of songs we've heard done better. The bonus disc includes some terrific live material from a variety of settings.
Goodbye Cruel World came out in 1984, and more than anything else Costello has ever recorded, it sounds trapped in its time. The fresh pop sheen of the production overwhelms the songs, with dated keyboard sounds and incessant saxophone interjections getting in the way of modern enjoyment. There are good to great songs here, but ironically, only the two most heavily produced cuts -- "The Only Flame in Town" and an obscure cover song, "I Wanna Be Loved" -- still sound fresh. Interestingly, the bonus disc has two alternate versions of "The Only Flame" that are even better, revealing the subdued, haunting chills at the core of this song.
Costello always improves songs live, and the six newly unearthed live cuts on the bonus disc show up the lack of emotional honesty on the record itself. Given that this album was recorded at the time of the final ending to his first marriage, it's possible he was afraid of revealing too much truth in the recording studio. If so, it was the only failure of nerve he's ever shown us.
I'd forgotten what a gem Kojak Variety is. The album was recorded in 1991, in five days, with a brilliant lineup of musicians. The group took a week's vacation in Barbados and ran through a bunch of amazing, frequently completely obscure cover songs from a variety of genres. Costello has always displayed impeccable understanding of other people's songs. There's a palpable sense of fun on this record too, as the players have no thoughts of trying to make this one a commercial success.
The bonus disc includes a lot of rarities rounded up from the mid-'90s, with the core being a set of ten songs, most previously unissued, Costello recorded in the style of George Jones with the intention of convincing the country master to cover material by the likes of Tom Waits, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen. It could be the best album George Jones never made, though Costello's vocals are a far cry from his influence here. Of the three new reissues, Kojak Variety easily offers the most consistent pleasures.