THIS YEAR’S MODEL: What does the listener get by reinvesting in new versions of Costello classics every couple of years?
How many bonus tracks does it take to screw your average Elvis Costello fan? Five? Ten? Fifteen? And how long before this year’s This Year’s Model becomes last year’s This Year’s Model? The Universal Records imprint Hip-O has already answered the second question: last May, the label released a “new” This Year’s Model boasting one bonus track — “(I Don’t Want To Go to) Chelsea,” which along with “Night Rally” was dropped from the US version of the album in ’78 in favor of “Radio Radio.” And now, less than a year later, we’ve got another This Year’s Model, the Hip-O “Deluxe Edition,” with enough bonus material to double (almost) the length of the original album plus a full bonus disc of live tracks recorded in Washington, DC, in ’78. It’s part of Universal’s Hip-O “Deluxe Edition Series,” which is described on an advertising insert as a collection of “Legendary albums remastered, restored, and expanded with previously unreleased material on two CDs in special packaging.” That rustling you hear is the sound of Universal execs digging furiously through their vaults in a last-gasp effort to pump up sagging CD sales. For an update on those efforts, register at www.universalchronicles.com.
Costello is almost certainly the most reissued artist of his generation. And since he has a number of “legendary” albums to his credit, that trend is likely to continue. The Deluxe Edition Series took on his debut, 1977’s My Aim Is True, last year, but not before Hip-O first reissued it last May as a single disc. The “Deluxe Edition” arrived in September. But this isn’t the first time My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model have received the deluxe-reissue treatment. Both albums have been reissued at least five times.
The Elvis Costello catalogue was one of the first to enter the bonus-tracks sweepstakes when, in 1993, Rykodisc licensed the rights to his Columbia catalogue. Each of Rykodisc’s single-disc versions tacked hearty helpings of bonus material on at the end of the original album — after a polite five-second pause. When the Ryko contract had run its course, the Warner imprint Rhino inherited the rights to reissue the Costello catalogue yet again, and it was time for a little one-upmanship. Rhino couldn’t simply reissue the Ryko reissues: instead, more bonus material was piled on as My Aim Is True swelled to 25 tracks on two discs, with demos, alternate takes, and rarities. This Year’s Model, which Ryko had kept to a relatively modest 18 tracks, grew into a 26-track beast, fleshed out with several live rarities (“Neat Neat Neat” and “Roadette Song”) that carried with them a whiff of desperation.
So what’s a poor Elvis Costello fan to do? Those classy Ryko versions now go for as much as $40 on eBay, as do the 2001 Rhino reissues. There’s good reason for that. Whereas the Deluxe Editions of My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model have more tracks (48 on the former, 40 on the latter), Hip-O doesn’t simply add to what was already there. Instead, these new versions offer a trade-off: you get more live material, but only a select number of other bonus tracks. The new This Year’s Model has a full 17-song set recorded in DC, but it’s missing the BBC version of “Stranger in the House,” the demos of “You Belong to Me” and “Radio Radio,” and an outtake titled “The Price of Love,” all of which were part of the 2001 edition. It’s as if Universal expected Elvis Costello fans to reinvest in 30-year-old albums every couple of years. Imagine that.