Elvis Costello emerged as an angry young craftsman in the punk-new wave movement of the late '70s, but he gradually evolved into the rumpled Tin Pan Alley tunesmith of rock 'n' roll.
Still, writing songs all day isn't as gratifying as it used to be, and so Costello seems compelled to sneak out, now and then, and throw himself into the abandon of a live performance.
Costello, reunited with his longtime backing band, the Attractions, came to the Rosemont Theatre Saturday night for a sold-out show in front of an audience of the faithful. The only problem was that Costello, even at his most abandoned, always seems to hold something in reserve.
Costello's music comes to life in the moments when his craftsmanship allows him to channel his deepest passions. While Trust may be the'album in which he most closely approaches pop-rock perfection, This Year's Model and Blood & Chocolate are ultimately better because they're his most emotionally direct works.
Saturday there was a thumping version of "Uncomplicated" and a lovely rendition of "Party Girl" (done by Costello and keyboardist Steve Nieve in the manner of their two-man tour this spring).
And the 23-song opening set came to a rollicking conclusion with "Pump It Up," a cover of Larry Williams' "Slow Down," a rousing "Beyond Belief" and then "Accidents Will Happen" and "Complicated Shadows."
"Accidents Will Happen" included a whispered call-and-response between Costello and the crowd, a poignant moment for an artist who has always had a thorny relationship with his audience.
And "Complicated Shadows," which finds Costello adding the abrupt tempo-volume changes of Nirvana to his palette, allowed him to close the set at full throttle.
But then Costello went to a basic version of "Allison" and an over-embellished "Watching the Detectives" in his first encore, before finishing on the upswing again with "You Bowed Down," "Riot Act" and "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
When Costello isn't connecting emotionally with his music and his audience, his work becomes just so much fumbling around with technique in search of a way out. That was the problem with a slow-motion version of "Green Shirt" and the near-fusion noodling that infiltrated about one-third of the songs over the course of the night.
As much as Costello clearly loves rock 'n' roll, he never seems to trust the moments he really loses himself to it. It's as if he found that sort of music too easy, too cheap — somehow debasing.
Opening act Ron Sexsmith, a singer-songwriter favorite of Costello's, struck the tone of a low-key Freedy Johnston — if such a thing can be imagined. Still, he performed with the ease and placid confidence that has always eluded Costello himself.
In the end, Costello is most reminiscent not of Elvis Presley, whom he stole his name from, nor of Buddy Holly, from whom he got his look and his notion of craftsmanship, but of the character Limbert in the Henry James short story The Next Time. Limbert is a novelist, "an exquisite failure" in "the age of trash triumphant," and no matter how hard he tries to pander to the audience, his work is always just too good to be widely accessible. He is left always vowing to achieve success the next time.
As strong as Costello's show was Saturday night, it left one thinking that next time, next time he might really get it right.