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Eric Williams

Eric Williams

Posted: September 8, 2007 03:45 PM

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

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."