If you happened to catch the two shows that Elvis Costello played in Boston during 1996 — an acoustic show with pianist Steve Nieve at the Paradise in April, followed by a full-band show with his group the Attractions at Harborlights in August — you probably noticed at least one major difference: Costello enjoyed himself at the acoustic show. In contrast, the band show was a surprisingly bad-tempered affair. Although still polite to his audience, as always, Costello apparently had a lot of frustration to vent — mostly through jam-heavy rearrangements that bordered on perverse — at his band, his back catalogue, and a format he seemed to feel he'd outgrown. It was no surprise when he announced, on stage in California a few weeks later, that he'd never tour with the band again.
It's also no surprise that the first live album of Costello's career (not counting the 1978 bootleg of his first North American tour that was later reissued by Rykodisc) comes from last spring's acoustic shows. Costello & Nieve — For the First Time in America (Warner Bros.) is a handsomely packaged, limited-edition set of five EPs taken from as many tour stops (in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York) and originally sold as benefit discs in those cities. True, the 130-odd minutes of music could have been released on a more affordable double CD. Although it's packaged as a lavish gift box, the new Costello is more of an old-fashioned live album, less a definitive career summary than a snapshot of where the artist was, both musically and emotionally, at the time.
Nothing seems to sum Costello up better nowadays than the radically rearranged version of "Temptation" (originally on Get Happy!!) that opens the first (Los Angeles) disc, as it did most of the acoustic shows. Costello teases the audience with a bit of personal revelation, noting that when he wrote it, "I was thinking, 'I'll never lose my mind, I'll never become trapped by fame.' Well, that [second] part was true." Unlike the original, which buried the lyric behind a hopped-up Booker T. groove, this one brings to light some lacerating self-criticism: "Who's this kid with his mumbo-jumbo, living in air-conditioned limbo ... Now that he's finally trying to make some sense, he drinks in self-defense." On the original "Temptation," Costello was that kid, spewing out the lyrics double-time; on this slower and more sympathetic version one can hear him looking at himself 15 years ago and thinking, "Thank God I lived through that."
There are similar bittersweet moments throughout the set. Originally on Brutal Youth, "All the Rage" was written as a kissoff to Costello's old, angry persona and to the fans who kept demanding it, but this version (from Chicago) suggests some of his own regret that those days are gone. From Boston comes a "My Funny Valentine" that's more obsessive and moving than his 1978 stab at the song. Throughout these CDs, Costello comes across as so unguarded, and so emotionally generous, that nothing could sound more churlish than a complaint like "It doesn't rock, man."
Which leads me to my one complaint about Costello & Nieve: it doesn't rock, man. And save for chunks of the out-of-character Brutal Youth, hardly anything Costello's done in the past 10 years really has. Yet he is, first and foremost, a great rock-and-roller, and the Attractions on a good night — even during parts of the chaotic shows last summer — could go up against anybody. So it's distressing that he seems to lose more interest in rock as the years go on. That was evident on his last two albums, the all-covers Kojak Variety. All This Useless Beauty. On that album Costello showed a preference for theatrical vocals and tinkly cocktail arrangements that squeezed the life out of more songs than they enhanced.
The best songs from Beauty — "It's Time," "Poor Fractured Atlas," and the deliciously nasty "Starting To Come to Me" — all benefit from the stripped-down and more urgently sung treatments in this box. With Costello laying low on guitar (and laying it down for several numbers), acoustic pianist Nieve plays more like a respectful accompanist than the flashy soloist he is in the Attractions.
One can also quibble with some of the song and arrangement choices. Why two versions of "The Long Honeymoon," perhaps his most melodramatic song? And isn't it time he gave a rest to his habit of quoting from other songs during "Alison?" Hearing Costello attempt to turn "Watching the Detectives" into an art song — with far too many pregnant pauses and horror-movie piano flourishes — I'm only tempted to quote back the lyric "Don't get cute." Along with "Don't forget about what you do best," that may be good advice for Costello to take into the next, as-yet uncharted, stage of his career.