ELVIS Costello might have been a punk. But he was never Punk. His debut album might have been released in 1977, but it was no year zero for the erstwhile Declan McManus (the Elvis came from, well, Elvis; Costello is his mother’s maiden name). His songs always acknowledged that they owed a debt to everything that punk attempted to deny: musicianship, craft, a sense of place that had a little more permanence than a gob of spit hanging off the mic.
And so it is now: Costello, paunchier than the rail-thin youth that appeared on the cover of This Year’s Model (his first album with the Attractions, who are his backing band tonight, playing under the name The Imposters), decked out in a purple jacket, has matured in the same way that John Lydon has descended into childishness. The past quarter-century has seen Costello try everything from country, on 1981’s Almost Blue, to collaborations with the Kronos Quartet, and Burt Bacharach.
This year alone, he has released two albums: a collection of classical pieces, Il Sogno, which offered a measured foil to the raw, and heartfelt collection, The Delivery Man.
His only UK show this year kicks off with a blistering rendition of How To Be Dumb, with Costello almost tearing chunks from the body of his guitar as keyboard player Steve Nieve assaulted his instrument with glee, while drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas (no relation) are a pummelling, driven rhythm section. And for the next few songs, this pace continues. Costello – tonight, as always – works best when he’s delivering a series of short sharp shocks; when his vocals are spat out with machine-gun pace and the music frantically attempts to keep up.
The title track of The Delivery Man is rendered at a more relaxed pace, its waltzing blues motif wrapped around a Dylanesque story and a lurching, funereal organ, and when Costello gets to the line “In a certain light, he looked like Elvis,” he can’t help but raise a smile. Before the honky-tonk stomp of Monkey To Man, Costello explains that it’s a song bequeathed to us by our simian ancestors – adding that “We should never, on any account, in any country, vote for anyone who is a disgrace to the theory of evolution” – to rapturous applause.
The beautiful, lilting Country Darkness follows, a regretful lament in which his raw baritone is backed with quietly emphatic guitar lines that contain 1000 tears in every note.
There are occasions, however, when Costello seems keen to sacrifice both humour and brevity in favour of lengthy jams which do the songs a disservice. Uncomplicated, from Blood And Chocolate, is sludgy and over-long, its sentiments bogged down in bar-room riffing and pointless handclaps courtesy of the audience. You can feel the song being drained of its energy with every second that passes. It’s a relief when – such as on a rousing I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, or on the final encore, an electric double whammy of Pump It Up and Oliver’s Army – Costello lets rip, and strains at the collar of his shirt when rasping out a chorus.
Throughout, Costello’s voice is the one constant: a thing of ragged beauty which has weathered the years with admirable lightness; if he sometimes sounded nasal as a youth, he now sounds defiant and just weary enough, like a man who’s seen enough of life to know that there’s more pain than wonder in the world. And that’s after he married jazz diva Diana Krall, who might just be hovering around the sound desk in shades.
A tender run through Shipbuilding is inevitably one of the evening’s highlights, though the song’s resigned conclusion (it was written about the build-up to the Falklands war), “We will be shipbuilding … diving for dear life/When we could be diving for pearls” is marred by an over-talkative crowd.
He might have just turned 50, but Costello still has the fervour of his youthful self. He’s as much of an outsider and a singular proposition as ever, and it’s something we should all be thankful for.
10 October 2004