Re-invention — sometimes subtle, sometimes radical — has been a steady part of Elvis Costello's evolution, ever since he shed the tag of "angry young man of Britain's new wave" about 16 years ago. Two other things, related: He's become far more loquacious — which is to say he's turned about 180 degrees from his clenched-teeth nastiness and feedback-driven blast of yore — and he's become more of a pure singer. If the emphasis was on the 2nd half of the term "singer-songwriter," it is now split equally, to no one's loss.
New lyrical licks n' kicks include "You took the blossom off my youth and blew it all to smithereens" from "Little Atoms" and "Although passion still flickers / We never got into our knickers" from "Just About Glad," a song of an unconsummated affair. The latter kicked off Costello's acoustic set at the Paradise Monday night.
Bill Weld didn't issue a proclamation, but Monday was Elvis Day in Boston, in celebration of his just-released album, All This Useless Beauty. There was a live broadcast at WBCN's studios at noon; a half-hour, private music biz/local retailer gig at the tiny Kendall Cafe at 2 PM; and a long-sold-out, 130 minute gig at the Paradise later that night, simulcast by WBOS. (An interesting shift, there, in that 'BOS, a rare presence in clubland, got the simulcast, not El's longtime radio home, 'BCN. A spokesman for Warner says the company is first pushing Costello at adult-alternative stations such as 'BOS, and then will take the album to alternative and rock radio.)
Costello, who played to a packed house with Attractions pianist Steve Nieve, will return with the full band to Harborlights Aug. 14.
Costello's spare, intimate set was fashioned much like the Paradise show by Kinks' Ray Davies last year. For this gig, part of a brief promotional tour, Costello mixed song and chat, his rapier-like wit bringing touches of levity to a fairly serious selection of songs.
Costello wasn't afraid to turn the guns on himself, alluding to a long-ago Catholic upbringing aand noting it came from a time when "Phil Silvers was a role model, not somebody I'm turning into." Costello also joked that he penned a song for the "Evita"-era pregnant Madonna called "Couldn't You Keep That to Yourself?" During the same song Costello served up hilarious imitations of the first Elvis singing (as he might have, had he lived), Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass". There was also a musing about alt-rock look-alikes Alanis Morissette and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. (This was very funny, particularly the Elvis part.)
This was, decidedly, listener-friendly Elvis, even if the bulk of the material consisted of songs from the new album, and not familiar favorites. "I don't know whether I told you yet, but I love everybody," Costello said, early on, wryly sending up his past surliness. He kept returning to the love riff throughout the show.
The musical emphasis on the new material worked — it's Costello's strongest batch of songs in years, with many of them previously recorded by other artists.
They're clever, but uncluttered, emotionally resonant, mid-tempo, often somber or pained. They're well suited to the grand piano-acoustic guitar format Nieve and Costello employed. There was clarity, economy and punch. The convoluted Costello of The Juliet Letters was absent.
A new unrecorded song, composed (by phone) with Burt Bacharach, "God Give Me Strength," had a grandiose sweep. Sang Costello, as Nieve's clusters of notes cascaded around his voice: "Since I've lost the power to pretend / That we could ever be happy in the end... / She was the light that I blessed / She took our last chance at happiness... / God, give me strength." Another new one, "Unwanted Number," gave rare dignity to young love and an ill-timed pregnancy, as well as the decision to end it. Sung Costello, from the women's point of view, "I won't give my love to an unwanted number."
Costello, looking geekily dapper in a vest, oversized shirt, glasses and semi-goatee, dropped old faves like "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Oliver's Army," "Alison," and "Watching the Detectives" (the latter two encores) along the way. A mid-set highlight was the relatively obscure, quietly incendiary "Just a Memory," where Costello fought the internal battle after a romantic bustup: "Losing you is just a memory / Memories don't mean that much to me." A nice try, yet he finds himself late at night lying awake in bed.
It was a hot night at the Paradise, figuratively and literally. It was also a no-smoking night, at the artist's behest. Costello's wife, Caitlin, former Pogues bassist, even whacked a guy over the head who didn't know the ground rules to help make a point.