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"My Aim Is Even Truer": the Special-Editioning of Everything

09/08/2007 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Tuesday, Hip-O Records will release Elvis Costello's "My Aim Is

True: Deluxe Edition".

When this classic debuted in the U.K. in 1977, it delivered the goods

in just over 30 minutes -- a potent and pithy twelve songs, which

expanded to thirteen in the U.S. with the inclusion of "Watching The

Detectives". The album launched the former Declan MacManus on his

spectacular and still vital career, even earning him a Grammy

nomination for Best New Artist - although, in keeping with this

category's notoriously dicey track record (Milli Vanilli anyone?),

Costello lost to the group A Taste Of Honey. That's right, kids,

"Alison" was trumped by "Boogie Oogie Oogie".

In the intervening thirty years (holy crap, THIRTY years??), "Aim" and

the rest of the early Costello catalogue have been released and

re-released in so many formats and configurations that, when I read of

this latest reissue, I laughed out loud. This album has had more

incarnations than the Who have had farewell tours.

"My Aim Is True" was first released on vinyl and cassette -- it's even

ancient enough to have been an eight-track! In 1986 came the first

CD edition on Columbia. Rykodisc put out the first "extended" version

in 1993, enticing fans to rebuy the remastered album with the addition

of nine intriguing tracks. Rhino offered up a two-disc set in 2001,

appending four bonus cuts to the Ryko nine. Earlier this year, Hip-O

went back to basics, with just the primordial 13-song lineup in

cardboard packaging which replicated the vinyl sleeve in miniature.

And now comes the "Deluxe" edition -- 48 tracks, 26 previously

unreleased - quadrupling the number of cuts contained on that initial

U.K. collection. It's being hawked as "the most definitive version of

'My Aim Is True' yet!" Given historical precedent, I'd say the key

word there is "yet".

And I'll be damned if I'm not gonna fall for it. Again.

At least there are genuine reasons for music fans to be excited by

this supplementary material. "Aim" was recorded with musicians who

were quite literally anonymous, due to contractual obligations, and

only after the album was completed did Costello form his powerhouse

combo, the Attractions. The new live cuts will allow the

Elvis-obsessed to hear how the freshly minted Attractions applied

their legendary muscle to all but one of the "Aim" songs. Presumably

an Attractions rendition of "I'm Not Angry" remains securely in the

vaults, held in reserve for the "Ultimate, Super-Colossal,

We-Really-Mean-It-This-Time Edition" in 2012.

Thanks to his prolific output, Costello's closet has proven to be

cluttered with enough alternate arrangements, works-in-progress,

discarded song fragments and other brilliant mistakes for these

endless reissues to maintain some value and integrity. Even so, he

must be within reach of the bottom of his barrel, unless we're to be

treated to a future compilation of Elvis's answering-machine messages.

Ever since the CD revolution of the '80s, when the record labels

gorged on the profits from reselling the public albums they already

owned at twice the original price, we've been inundated with box sets

and special editions with bonus tracks designed to make us shell out

for our old favorites over and over. In most cases, the newly

discovered tracks prove the initial wisdom of leaving the recordings

buried. As a Beatles completist, I admit to buying all their

"Anthology" compilations but, of the 155 cuts sprawled across six CDs,

there's scarcely one disc's worth which adds significantly to the

band's legacy. "What's The New Mary Jane" is unlikely to have

replaced "Yesterday" or "In My Life" or "Hey Bulldog" as anyone's

favorite Beatles song, and I doubt that I've listened to any of the

discs in their entirety more than twice. And, really, it doesn't seem

to matter if this sort of material is captivating or revelatory. All

that's important is that we keep getting suckered in by the promise of

discovering the undiscovered.

The movie studios have taken the bonus-feature concept to the point of

absurdity. The Criterion Collection blazed exciting new trails during

the age of the laserdisc, offering enlightening supplementary

materials on films which merited in-depth scholarly scrutiny and

rewarded repeated viewings, from "Citizen Kane" and "8½" to "The

Graduate" and "Monty Python and The Holy Grail". Sydney Pollack's

running commentary on the Criterion edition of "Tootsie" is among the

most illuminating dissections of the Hollywood creative process which

I've ever encountered and serves as a great primer on the structure of

cinematic storytelling as well.

With the arrival of the DVD and its enormous storage capacity, the

studios absconded with the Criterion formula. Now every cinematic

turd gets the deluxe treatment - but once everything becomes

"special", then nothing is special. We can now learn more than anyone

would ever care to know about movies which barely deserved to be seen

once, complete with dawdling commentaries which reveal crucial

insights along the lines of "We shot this in Encino" or "I think it

was cloudy that day."

Even the filmmakers' uncertainty or the studio's meddling has been

contorted into a perverse sales lure. The packaging of the Robert

DeNiro/Dakota Fanning spookfest, "Hide and Seek", proudly proclaims

that the DVD includes four alternate endings! "Hey, folks, we didn't

have a clue how to end this thing. Why don't you watch these and take

your pick?"

And the California state legislature apparently passed a law that

every horror movie or raunchy comedy must now be released in an

"Unrated" version, adding further irrelevance to the brutal process of

whittling down a movie to appease the MPAA for a rating which will

only be meaningful for the three weeks which most films spend in the

purgatory of theatres on their way to eternal life on home screens.

In fact, sometimes ONLY the unrated cut is available on video, making

it impossible to purchase the often tighter, less bloated version of

the film that you enjoyed in the theatre.

In the end, it's our own fault if we keep falling for this tactic, if

"buyer's amnesia" keeps us from recalling that unreleased demos or

deleted scenes were usually unreleased or deleted for good reason.

In the case of "My Aim Is True", much of the appeal of this new

release is the chance to come to these familiar songs anew, in a

perhaps futile desire to recapture the thrill we experienced the first

time we heard them.

Which just goes to prove that old maxim - or actually the maxim which

I present here in a brand-new, digitally-remastered,

never-before-released alternative version:

"Those who remember the past are condemned to repurchase it."