YARMOUTH — In the beginning — early 1977 — the small English record label, Stiff, launched an ad campaign that went like this: "As you know there are only two Elvises. One is fat and famous, one is small and languishes in obscurity ... Remember we at Stiff say Elvis is King."
Stiff's Elvis Costello, an awkward-looking, knockneed Buddy Holly type, released his first album, My Aim Is True, a month before Elvis Presley died. With that album and its biting followup, This Year's Model, Costello carved his niche as rock 'n' roll's angriest young man, playing furious, tense songs that he said were motivated by "revenge and guilt."
Costello didn't languish in obscurity for long — he became a critically and popularly acclaimed artist. Nor did he stick to writing songs based on revenge and guilt. As evidenced on his latest LP, Imperial Bedroom, Costello's lyrical arid musical base has broadened. Songs are subtler, more complex, prettier.
But there's been a nagging feeling that Costello's impact was becoming less than the sum of his parts. Yes, the wordplay remained clever, the melodic shifts inventive. But the music seemed overly studied and Costello himself told Newsweek he was worried his recent material may have "lost some of the edge that bloody-mindedness gives you."
Before a sellout crowd at Cape Cod Coliseum Sunday night Costello brought that "bloody-mindedness" — or just call it intensity, a furious desire to communicate — to the stage for two hours. There was still anger and simmering tension, but those qualities are now part of the musical mix, not Costello's sole artistic raison d'etre. And the Attractions — keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas — gave even Costello's most mannered songs ("Beyond Belief," "You Little Fool") a rock 'n' roll kick. No, this Elvis is not ready for Las Vegas.
Last year at the Orpheum, Costello and band played competently, but the show had too many flat spots — mostly songs from the Get Happy!! album. This year the flat spots were few, and all concerned were breathing fire. Costello, once notorious for short shows, assured the Cape crowd: "We're gonna play plenty of songs. We've got all night."
The set didn't build to a climax; each song was presented as a quick hitting mini-explosion. Costello often set up a triptych, such as when he linked a tense rocker ("Watch Your Step") to a soul cover (The O'Jays "Back Stabbers") to his own Motown-influenced song "King Horse." In this series, the first song conveyed menace, the second paranoia, and on the third the steamy rock 'n' roll blasted those qualities away.
Nine songs came from the first two LPs, Including an encore of the anti-radio anthem for all time "Radio, Radio," and most were played in a frenzy, recharged with new vitriol. The effect of Costello's lyrics was rarely narrative; they came hurtling out as memorable fragments, such as "She has eyes like saucers, you think she's a dish" in "Big Sister's Clothes."
The Attractions showed themselves to be a powerful and dexterous, if uncharismatic, band. Nieve's organ playing, no longer limited to the cheesy, thriller-movie style, had many sophisticated, properly lush, touches. Throughout, the pacing was superb, as Costello deftly balanced rockers and ballads, bringing complication, wit and passion to each.
The only disappointment was the opening band, Talk Talk, which seemed just another stylish but empty, synthesizer-based group.