But his talent overcame their confusion. Gilbert’s 1970 single Nothing Rhymed was the first of 12 hits – two of them No 1s – and arguably the first-ever chart song to mention global hunger. He sang: “When I’m drinking my Bonaparte Shandy [brandy], eating more than enough apple pies, will I glance at my screen and see real human beings starve to death right in front of my eyes?”
Smart pop with unsettling lyrics is his forte. These 65 tracks include Alone Again (Naturally) which marries an amiable, melodic tune with suicidal words.
Jilted, his character promises to treat himself by throwing himself off a nearby tower.
Gilbert is gutted again on the bittersweet Why Oh Why. But other big hits, Clair, and the still-puzzling Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day are less downbeat.
This collection kicks off with 1973 chart-topper Get Down and ends with Christmas Song, a hit from 1974 with a message that is still valid today. Gilbert’s not dreaming of a White Christmas: “All I’m dreaming of the whole day long is a peaceful world”.
His collaborations with KT Tunstall, Mick Hucknall and Peggy Lee are all present and correct too.
Irish-born, Swindon-raised Gilbert is often compared to Paul McCartney and Ray Davies because his lyrics employ colloquial English and reflect working-class life.
He certainly struck a chord. In 1972, he sold more UK singles than any other male solo artist.
At 76, Gilbert’s sales might have declined, but his creative powers have not.
This year’s critically acclaimed album Driven was packed with gems like Blue Anchor Bay.
This three-CD box set is a testimony to the work ethic, artistry and eccentricity that have never left him.