Elvis Costello may have mellowed some in his personal habits — and even to a degree in his music, as his latest album Imperial Bedroom shows — but when it comes to live performances he certainly hasn't forgotten how to rock, as a captivated crowd learned Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre.
The brash and brilliant British rocker, who early in his career earned considerable notoriety for showing up late to concerts and then rushing through them in record time, followed the opening act Talk Talk almost precisely on time and then launched into an alternatingly furious and contemplative set of songs that controlled the Atlanta audience as surely as a puppeteer controls a puppet.
Talk Talk performed a tight and entertaining opening set topped off by their namesake single "Talk Talk," but the mainly young fans had obviously come for Costello. They milled about the Fox's lobby until the lights dimmed for the main act, then streamed into the previously half-filled hall like lemmings driving for the sea. Costello responded with a driving and pauseless four song introduction, running through "Accidents Will Happen," "Green Shirt," "Pidgin English," and "Hand In Hand" before most people could draw a solid breath.
In a recent interview with Newsweek's Jim Miller, Costello allowed that he felt many of his early songs were too "smug," "clinical," and "narrow-minded." His new work, he said, should have heart and compassion. But he wondered, he told Miller, if that attitude would take some of the edge off his previous compositions, the edge that "bloody-mindedness gives you."
That was, admittedly, a problem as Costello gave almost a bouncy reading to songs that, when he first recorded them, seemed designed to drive the listener to unutterable despair. But by the time he had eased through the first few selections — and the audience, who would have cheered him maniacally at the start had he simply stood on stage and recited "Mary Had A Little Lamb," had calmed down enough to actually listen — he seemed to have found a new meaning in even his oldest work.
The crowd probably didn't understand what he was up to, but Costello, to his credit, refused to pander. "It's a bit of a dilemma," he told Miller after a concert in San Diego earlier this year. "You've got to play what they (the fans) came to see. But I'm not a one-dimensional sort of paper tiger. You can make songs so crass that everyone can understand them, or complicated enough that they're interesting." Wednesday night he managed to do a bit of both, thrashing out on such things as a stellar version of "Watching The Detectives" from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True, and then winding down to relay the complicated aches of "Long Honeymoon" from his newest work, Imperial Bedroom.
For that matter, the nearly two-hour performance seemed designed to pull the fans that still want the Elvis Costello who was once tagged "the angry young man of Britian's New Wave" into his more adult, and more complicated, present vision.
Costello never has been one for labels, though Lord knows that hasn't done much to keep people from trying to pin one on him. When he first appeared on these shores, he was dubbed by rabid followers as the obvious successor to the recently defunct original Elvis.
Critic Dave Marsh, paying less attention to the name and more attention to the face and hair, pegged the most listenable product of England's late '70s New Wave explosion, "Buddy Holly after drinking a can of STP Oil Treatment." Other critics, struck by the bite of the lyrics in Costello's 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True, christened him "rock's angry young man."
None of the labels was completely wrong, but none was completely right either. In a series of eclectic albums he had moved from the straight — if hard-edged — pop of My Aim Is True to the furious rock of This Year's Model through the bizarre imagery of Armed Forces (where personal relationships were likened to international affairs) to the rhythm and blues influenced Get Happy!
Costello's desire for success, and fury at being denied it, caused him to almost quit recording.
In 1981, though, Costello seemed to rebound, releasing the quiet (for him) Trust and an album of country covers, Almost Blue. The return to form has been completed with the recently released Imperial Bedroom, which more than one critic has lauded as Costello's masterpiece. The most convincing set of songs Costello has put down since Get Happy!, Imperial Bedroom also unveiled a mellower Costello, one willing to interact with his audience and present concerts that are not only entertaining and challenging but downright enjoyable.