Holmdel Township — In his song "God's Comic," Elvis Costello describes a couple of the things that make his stomach churn airport novelettes and Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals.
Last night, adding a monologue to the song during his performance at the Garden State Arts Center, he expanded the list to include colorized movies, divorce lawyers, television evangelists and MTV. Easy targets, all.
Who does like colorized movies or divorce lawyers? Who admits to liking MTV? The fact is, Costello made an in-person appearance on MTV just a day earlier, and since MTV is merely as good or bad as the music or videos it chooses to air, it might have been very good at that moment. And if two people want to get divorced and the law is getting in their way, is a divorce lawyer so bad?
One of the things that has made Costello one of the major voices of rock 'n' roll in the past 12 years is that his songs recognize these contradictions and rarely settle for easy answers.
That's why he is, in fact, a league above airport novelists and Andrew Lloyd-Webber. He usually leaves it to them to knock the simple targets while he explores the more complex ones.
Such as his audience. Last night, he had them singing brightly along ("do-do-do-do-do") with the chorus of a vicious song about capital punishment, "Let Him Dangle." The audience sang as cheerily and excitedly as if it were singing "Da Doo Ron Ron." Costello offered a wicked smile.
Even at the end of "God's Comic," which is about one man's confrontation with his maker, the audience happily chirped several choruses of "Now I'm dead, now I'm dead," and Costello sneered back, "Now you're all going on to meet your reward."
Costello's best melodies are as rich as his words are complex, and his attempts to draw out the music had its ups and downs over the course of the two-hour show (which included nearly 45 minutes of encores, and songs from every phase of his career, including four from his 1977 debut album).
His band, the Rude Five (there were actually six of them), included a second percussionist, Micheal Blair, who played everything from a marimba to a kettle drum with the visual flair of an orchestra conductor, and two guitarists and a bass player who doubled as a three-man horn section. They virtually turned into a New Orleans brass band at the end of "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror."
And though he wasn't used enough, lead guitarist Marc Ribot, who has said his philosophy of playing is to make as much noise as he possibly can, did just that with unconventional, provocative, loud solos.
But the amplifiers were turned up so loud that from the front of the theater it at times bled into a noisy mush behind Costello's voice and mostly acoustic guitar. From the back, Costello's words were near-impossible to make out.
By contrast, a string of solo acoustic numbers Costello performed in the middle of the show was unambitious but brilliantly warm. He allowed himself to be cute segueing his song "Radio Sweetheart" into Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," which has something to do with listening to the radio and falling in love, and then taking off from the last line of his dark "New Amsterdam" with its visions of lives going down the drain and soaring into the Kinks' "Days," one of the most beautiful songs ever written about a busted relationship.
It was vintage Costello: tough and cynical one moment and warm and cute the next. He doesn't have to apologize for either stance, as long as he stays tougher and warmer than your average performer.