SOUTH YARMOUTH — Elvis Costello kicked off his Armed Forces album with "Accidents Will Happen," a topsy-turvy pop song he began with a sigh: "Oh, I just don't know where to begin..." I find myself in a state of similar bewilderment while considering Costello's concert Saturday night at the Cape Cod Coliseum. The 100-minute, near sellout concert certainly was different. It was not the series of climactic, pop-rock explosions that made up last year's Cape concert. Instead, it was a more enigmatic set, showcasing Costello's latest (and questionable) maneuverings — a move toward a brassy, soul-like revue on one hand and a move toward "smart" middle-of-the-road pop on the other.
Costello is one of rock 'n' roll's most gifted lyricists and pop craftsmen. A Costello set, virtually any Costello set, is bound to deliver a certain amount of complex pleasure. Yet too much was held back Saturday, the third date of Costello's US tour. The sound gets a mixed report card — rather muddy vocals, weak guitar and keyboard mix; strong brass and drums mix. The lighting was superb and subtle: six tall columns framed the group on stage and were lit to emphasize dramatic musical shifts. The climate was a not-unexpected hot and sticky.
Following a bland set of folk-rock by England's Aztec Camera, Costello, dressed in black and sporting white shoes, came on. He seemed formal at the outset, more a cautious bandleader than a transfixing singer, and he never really let it rip. More disturbing, however, were the radical changes in song arrangements, changes that too often confounded the songs emotional resonance. Costello's voice was marked less by subtlety and nuance — his strengths — than by oversinging. (He botched "Watch Your Step" by turning the quietly menacing coda into a shout.) Unlike last year's concert, Costello's song selection was unrepresentative of his career, weighted heavily toward songs from the new record, Punch the Clock and Get Happy!!, and including only three songs from his first three LPs. (Nine songs came from those records last year.)
Costello staked out his artistic claim with that early phase: Fierce, confrontational lyrics dealing with personal and political power struggles and love gone bad; terse, pressure-cooker rhythms: agile melodic swerves. Costello's not turned his back on that style, not totally. "Shabby Doll" and "Secondary Modern" were flaming mid-set rockers, and his lyrics still push and pull enticingly. But Costello is shedding his clever-and-visceral rock 'n' roll past in favor of a more mannered, duller present. His "important" song now is "Shipbuilding," a soft attack on Britain's patriotic fervor during the Falklands War. Lyrically it's affecting, but the meandering piano backing is like cocktail music. Unlike "Oliver's Army," a wry war-and-politics pop song Costello omitted Saturday, the song's whole sum is less than the sum of its parts.
The major change has been the addition of the TKO Horns (trombonist Jim Paterson, alto saxophonist Jeff Blythe, tenor saxophonist Paul Speare and trumpeter Dave Plews) and the de-emphasis of Costello's longtime backing trio, the Attractions (keyboardist. Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas). The TKO Horns played not just on songs from Punch the Clock, on which they are amply featured, but on numerous older tunes. Song rearrangements frequently featured prominent, punchy brass lines, where previously there had been Nieve's keyboards, Costello's rhythm guitar, or simply breathing space. Some of it, particularly hard-driving songs from Get Happy!!, worked. But too often — "Watching the Detectives," "New Lace Sleeves," "Alison" and "Pump It Up" to name four — the busy arrangements trivialized the songs, supplanting tension and rock 'n' roll with staccato horn tricks and big band-like flourishes. "Pump It Up," the set closer that Costello used to introduce the group, was treated as a throwaway. The hurried rocker became not a song of conflict and scorn, but of mindless frenzy. The chorus — "Pump it up / Until you can feel it / Pump it up / When you don't really need it" — could have applied to the arrangements.
This Elvis is not bound for Las Vegas. But this set seemed much more a "show" — that is, overly stylized and routine than it did a concert of explosive, expansive rock 'n' roll. That's been the Costello standard.