Hard to believe it's been a quarter-century since Elvis Costello first burst onto the pop landscape as a bowlegged, bespectacled New Wave update of Buddy Holly. In the years since, Costello has embraced at least as many stylistic shifts and incarnations as his namesake, often with similarly uneven results.
For nearly every watershed album, there has been a warmed-over bummer or tediously impenetrable outing. Which is why Costello's new disc, When I Was Cruel, is cause for reassurance, if not outright celebration. The disc marks a return to the leaner, louder, more visceral musical terrain he had all but abandoned in favor of snoozy elder-statesmanship.
At 47, Costello may no longer be playing the Angry Young Man, but what he made abundantly clear to a sold-out Orpheum audience Monday night is that he may yet be a venomously potent artist. The pared-down punch of new songs such as "Tear off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" offered bristling testimony to the savage desire and jealousy that still loiters in that perpetually broken heart of his, and sounded right at home alongside older fare such as "I Can't Stand up for Falling Down" and "I Hope You're Happy Now." That last tune, which backlit Costello's vocal sneer and manic electric guitar with Steve Nieve's swirling-carousel keyboards, opened the show and set the tone for what was, from promising start to triumphant finish, a magnificent, masterfully executed set that tore only the best pages from Costello's songbook.
Performing nearly 30 songs in just over two hours and returning to the stage for three encores, the singer-guitarist — backed by longtime collaborators Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, along with bassist Davey Faragher — seemed at once humble and strident, keenly focused on rich past and vital present.
His multiple musical personalities converged beautifully on material that ranged from the traditionalist, Bo Diddley-beating heart of the new "45" to the hit-and-run bitter broadside of "Radio, Radio" to the excruciatingly lovely "Almost Blue," the lounge-tinged torch number that closed the show.
Costello upped his own ante during the encores, tearing into the boisterous pub-rock riffing of "My Mood Swings" and a rash of essentials such as the ska-spiked "Watching the Detectives"; the metallic, theremin-subverted clank of the new "When I Was Cruel No. 2"; and the deliciously primal stomp of "Pump It Up." No question Elvis was, and is, back — king no longer, perhaps, but as wickedly cruel as ever.
Opener NRBQ delivered an engaging set of rootsy party-rock that bubbled over with the homespun grooves and easygoing warmth typical of the outfit.