In middle age, Elvis Costello has dropped off the charts, owing (I think) to the ironclad banality of contemporary radio; but far from dropping out of sight he has ascended to the professoriate of modern songwriting. He's an elder statesman now, someone who has never once stopped writing brilliant songs at any time in the last thirty years. _Girls! Girls! Girls!_, consisting as it does of songs recorded between 1976 and 1986, now represents a small chunk of his output (though most agree, and not without reason, that he was at his best during that period, when he played in front of the transcendent Attractions).
So what is this curious _Girls! Girls! Girls!_ entity? As my fellow reviewers have noted, it's not a straight-up "best of"; it is rather a peculiar sort of collage. Elvis says the songs are bound together by the "obscure arithmetic of the title" but not all the songs are, in fact, about girls, girls, and girls. Late in the CD running order we wander into realms of acerbic political fantasy ("Pills and Soap," "Tokyo Storm Warning"). But most of our time is spent loitering on Elvis's two favourite avenues: meet you at the corner of Revenge and Guilt.
I can't help feeling the songs are chosen to highlight the playing of Elvis's sidemen. One great thing about Elvis's liner notes is that they point you to bits of Attraction brilliance; then, if you're paying even slight attention, you find your own. "Check out Bruce Thomas's playing on the outro to 'Shabby Doll'," sez Elvis; you do, and your jaw drops; and you're attuned, for the remainder of the CD, to Bruce's fantastic playing. I figure there's a reason the "methiest" of Elvis's songs aren't on here. He was trying to present the Attractions at their very tightest, as on the galloping but not unbridled "Lipstick Vogue." There are also self-deprecating arguments for some overlooked songs from the Costello canon; I think we can hardly agree that "High Fidelity" is redeemed only by the "comical drunkenness" of the singer. Even Elvis probably doesn't think that.
These are the Elvis Costello songs that would have been hits if the public had shared Elvis's own judgment, is how I'd explain it. He is on record as thinking that if record buyers and DJs had any sense, "Tokyo Storm Warning" would have been a hit--and "Every Day I Write the Book" wouldn't have been. As a songwriter's (and singer's) journey through his own work, this set is bloody overpowering. It is literally too good to listen to in one sitting. You'd be wrung out and other music would be ruined for you for a good two weeks. There are entire months when I listen to little else but _Girls! Girls! Girls!_. For God's sake, buy it. If you already own it, buy another.