ALBANY, N.Y. — Only Elvis Costello knows for sure what his true aim really was when he burst on the scene a dozen years ago with the striking blend of punk and new-wave rock on his debut album, My Aim Is True.
Since that time, Costello has established himself as rock's premier songwriter. Or perhaps that should be the premier songwriter of all popular music, for Costello has scored in genres including country, reggae, soul, and old-fashioned pop, leading artists such as Frank Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt and the late Roy Orbison to cover his tunes.
Costello has always been a sophisticated pop craftsman of the highest order. His records are at once highly original, singular achievements that at the same time recapitulate and comment on the history of rock music. Like David Bowie, Costello assumes and discards new musical personae as easily as a change of shirt: the soul singer of Get Happy, the country singer of Almost Blue, the torch singer of Goodbye Cruel World.
If his latest album, Spike (Warner), is any indication, Costello's aim from the start was to emulate the Beatles, with a little Bob Dylan thrown in for good measure, with of course, a heavy dose of Costello's own, distinctive gift for extended metaphor and wordplay. As if to underline the point, he collaborates with Paul McCartney on a few numbers on Spike, including the hit single "Veronica," and the ferocious "Pads, Paws and Claws." McCartney's forthcoming album will supposedly include even more fruit from the Costello and McCartney sessions.
Part of Costello's appeal has always been the touch of arrogance that surrounds him no matter what he does, and the possibility that the arrogance is wholly a put-on. From the very beginning, his concerts were noteworthy for their brevity and his scornful attitude toward his audiences. When he was accused of being a racist, he recorded an album of 20 soul songs. When he won critical acclaim for the musically complex Armed Forces, which he originally titled Emotional Fascism, he responded by recording an album of country standards.
All this by way of saying that Costello has always been and remains a hopeless enigma. On his current tour of 15 college towns. which came to the Palace Theater Friday night, he performs solo, backed only by his acoustic guitar. At a time when full bands augment their sound with prerecorded rhythm and instrumental tracks, nothing could be more puzzling and retrograde.
With just one voice and an acoustic guitar, a performance is going to stand or fall on the strength of the singer's material. And it was the material that shone Friday night.
From the first song, "Accidents Will Happen," which opens with the line, "Oh, I just don't know where to begin..." Costello held the audience captive. His voice, not of great note on record, was surprisingly powerful live, and he is a master of phrasing. He offered a generous first set of songs, mostly tunes from Spike, with an occasional gem from one of his older albums, such as "New Amsterdam," which circled around a cover of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." "Pads, Paws and Claws" merged into "Leave My Kitten Alone," a Little Willie John song also covered by the Fab Four.
Costello was quite engaging, if not downright effusive. He talked a lot about TV and movies, especially works related to his own. He compared the version of his "Mystery Dance" done by Justine Bateman's band in the movie Satisfaction to "the Bangles on acid," and viciously mocked the prose of Bret Easton Ellis, who borrowed the title of his first novel, Less Than Zero, from a Costello song. He also said he watches Who's the Boss? regularly, waiting for Bruce Springsteen to appear.
He ended his first set with his own "I Want You," a song title also used by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. He then returned after a brief pause, amidst spooky sound effects and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, in the guise of Monsignor Napoleon Dynamite, sort of a devilish game-show host. Audience members were brought onstage by a wolfman to pick an unknown deadly sin from a broken heart and then to choose a song they'd like to hear Costello sing. While entertaining, this part of the show suffered from poor pacing and Costello sang less-than-urgent versions of staples such as "Alison" and "Red Shoes."
Costello closed the show with a blistering, hip-hop version of "Pump It Up," replete with prerecorded rhythm track and extensively fuzzed-up electric rhythm guitar. He acknowledged the song's roots with a verse from Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." and paid homage to that other man-who-would-be-the-Beatles, Prince, both musically and with a verse from his "Sign of the Times."
Costello's friend and sometime-producer Nick Lowe opened the show with an engaging, solo acoustic set of his own compositions, including "Cruel to Be Kind" and "I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll." Costello pre-empted his own entrance by joining Lowe on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," which Lowe wrote and Costello recorded.