WORCESTER — Elvis Costello's career is characterized by puzzling lurches. Consider: The man recently released his weakest, most middle-of-the-road album (Goodbye Cruel World), which immediately followed a superb, mostly acoustic, solo tour. That tour was the first to follow Costello and the Attractions' overblown set of poorly rearranged songs at Cape Cod Coliseum last summer. In moving away from his eclectic, cutting edge rock 'n' roll, Costello seemed bent on becoming a clever middle-of-the-road crooner. Give him enough rope.
Well, Costello hasn't hung himself yet. In fact, he's reversed direction once again: At the Centrum Tuesday, Costello followed Nick Lowe's deft set of country-pop with the strongest, most emotionally charged concert he's played in these parts. Costello covered a full range of moods, starting with the taut menace and sharp wordplay of "Green Shirt" and closing more than two hours later with the joyous release of "Pump It Up." He was a most generous performer, serving up chestnuts ("Girls Talk," "Watching the Detectives," "Alison"). alternate versions (ballad and rocking renditions of "The Only Flame In Town"), surprising covers (the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?," Presley's "[Marie's The Name] His Latest Flame"), and several unrecorded songs ("Young Boy Blues," "I Hope You're Happy Now"). Indeed, Costello was happy to be at the Centrum, surrounded by good acoustics and playing before 9000 fans. "So they finally closed down Cape Cod Coliseum," he said near the outset. "What good news."
Song rearrangement is crucial to Costello, an inveterate tinkerer. Last year, he faltered with show-bizzy arrangements and trivializing horn parts; this year, his rearrangements and elongations were uniformly top-notch, enhancing the original concepts. Perhaps the solo tour got Costello in touch with the essence of his songs. At any rate, he scuttled the four-piece TKO Horns and uses new saxophonist Gary Barnacle sparingly, but superbly (He spiked "Mystery Dance" with a blistering break.)
More than that, though, was the triumphant re-emergence of the Attractions, one of the best backing bands in rock 'n' roll. Keyboardist Steve Nieve, who's now going under the cheesy moniker of Maurice Worm, was an orchestra unto himself; his layers of keyboard work included classical maneuvers, trashy pop swipes, churchy organ lines and Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano romps. Costello played off Nieve with choked rhythm guitar and the Thomases, bassist Bruce and drummer Pete, kept the rhythms tight but elastic. The Attractions took no bows and spoke no words; they just played their hearts out, working "Lipstick Vogue" into a furious maelstrom, turning "New Lace Sleeves" into a tense rocker and making "Getting Mighty Crowded" a spirited soul celebration. Costello continues to bite the hand that feeds him, taking rock video to task in "Worthless Thing" and rock radio, specifically Top 40, to task in "Radio Radio."
But for a songwriter who once stated he was primarily motivated by revenge and guilt, Costello has come a long, long way. He has evolved into a convincing, soulful belter, who still pays attention to phrasing and nuance, sharply etching complex, tangled feelings. He can be angry, in love — or both at the came time. Costello obviously believes in the transcendent power of the well-crafted pop song. He's written a slew and he played over 30 of them to near-perfection Tuesday.