Who could have guessed that in a solo, largely acoustic concert Elvis Costello would give the surest, most expansive account of his versatility and power? In his recent 32-song, 110-minute performance at the Orpheum, he drew upon every phase of his career, and then some, reworking older numbers, introducing tracks from his upcoming album, Goodbye Cruel World, and investigating an array of material by writers as divergent as Brendan Behan, Bob Dylan, Charlie Rich, June Tabor, Jack Nitzsche, Jerry Dammers (of Special AKA), and Paddy McMoon (of Prefab Sprout). Moving from an acoustic Martin to an electric Telecaster, from a grand piano to an electric organ, Costello peeled back the arrangements of these songs, picking at their central conflicts, as he concentrated on the lyrics; and on his voice as it pushed through them. He once said that he is most interested in the "friction" between different kinds of music; and this is a key to his sound, which takes the suave toughness he admires in Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, the boppy urgency in R&B, the down-in-the-mouth melodrama of country, and filters them through the fast, hard anger of rock and roll. The subtlety of the blend he is reaching for — one that retains, even emphasizes, the tensions among its sources — can get lost in his headlong shows with his band, the Attractions; these performances generally take their cues from his most recent album — the Farfisa organ on This Year's Model, or the horns on Punch the Clock. But his solo outing was a purposeful, idiosyncratic summing-up of post-Presley popular music, about which there is little Costello has not heard, understood, and made his own. What other singer could have managed this as commandingly? John Lennon, certainly. Bob Dylan might have been interested 18 years ago. Perhaps Ray Davies. But not many more.
Emerging in 1977 with a bold new name that was at once a sly and a sour joke, his voice hectoring and phlegmy, his career without hits or significant airplay, Costello has revealed himself as the sharpest-witted and clearest-sighted songwriter of his generation, one of its most engaging performers, one of its few expressive singers. His nine albums include two rock records, a foray into baroque, Beatlish pop, a 20-song set of R&B sides, an underrated collection of country-and-western covers, a horn-soaked soul revue, and three efforts — Taking Liberties, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom — that elude the usual slots.
Anchoring Costello's style (it's what made the concert so sweeping and so personal) is the conviction of his singing. Despite his limitations, which are most evident in the abruptness of his transitions, he suggests great vocal range, almost by willing it, as he belts his way into the high notes or plunges to a seductive low croon. Costello's command proceeds from the attentiveness of his crisp phrasing; and like a method actor fixing on a role, he sinks deep into the lyrics. Because the characters in his songs are often troubled and frustrated, unsettling passages are the frequent result; the Orpheum audience kept trying to ease the tension with involuntary, inappropriate whoops and cheers. Spurred by the moment-to-moment intelligence that Costello brings to his singing, the concert was full of revelations. "Everyday I Write the Book," a bouncy, pop-disco single from Punch the Clock, was a soulful strut when he performed at the Cape Cod Coliseum last summer; here it was treated more starkly, sung with a clipped self-absorbed sneer — never has it been so clearly about a novelist lover who's using his work to exact revenge. On "Motel Matches," a brooding slow blues replaced the country waltz of Get Happy!!, and Costello underplayed the string-of-firecrackers puns as well ("Boys everywhere fumbling with the catches / I struck lucky with motel matches / Falling for you without a second look / Falling out of your open pocketbook / Giving you away like motel matches"), focusing on the gnarled passions in the story — his uneasy cruelty, her clear-eyed melancholy — as a one-night stand sorts itself out. His song about the war in the Falklands, "Shipbuilding," seems too pretty on Punch the Clock; here, presented with a stripped-down melody line, the lyric became chilling, as the singer cast himself as an unemployed builder who realizes the same actions that soon will return him to work have just killed his son. And "Dark End of the Street," the James Carr-Percy Sledge Masterpiece, he played on the piano. Edging his way into it, as if ill at ease with the material in the same way that the driven adulterer in the song is unsure of what's happening to him, Costello finally broke loose on the bridge: "They're gonna find us," he howled, his voice equal. parts anger, resignation, and fear. "I thought I knew that song," I heard a fan say after the show.
The songs that Costello covered at the Orpheum dovetailed with his own; so resolutely did they echo his persistent themes — entangled romance, jealousy, betrayal, obsession — it was almost as if he had written them. Again the most provocative moments followed from the friction between styles of music: Jerry Dammers's cheeky "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend" bounced off his own "Girls Talk"; a June Tabor folk lament about the death camps led into "Shipbuilding." Especially impressive was the new drama Costello located in throwaway genre songs — Jack Nitzsche's corny "I Love Her Too," for instance, or Dylan's "I Threw It All Away,"an awkward trifle from Nashville Skyline that suddenly sounded tragic.
Of the six new numbers Costello brought to Boston, "The Only Flame in Town," which worries the fire image of its title for dozens of lines, "Inch by Inch," a menacing account of sexual hostility (which he introduced caustically as "'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones"), and the melancholy "Home Truth" were the most daunting and vivid. "Worthless Thing," about television and pop show business, had a number of funny lines (particularly those about impersonators of the other Elvis — "grave robbers from Memphis. Tennessee, to Las Vegas body snatchers") but seemed less concentrated and pointed than 1978's "Radio, Radio." "Lovefield" sounded fragmentary and elusive. And the final selection of the night, "Peace in Our Time" (recently released as an English single — like last year's "Pills and Soap" — under the pseudonym the Impostor), is his most straightforward political song yet. After evoking Chamberlain and the 1938 Munich Agreement in a few quick, sardonic phrases, it sweeps on to the invasions of the Falkland Islands and Grenada, only to falter near the end with some obvious and already dated jokes. about our current presidential campaign. Or so it seemed — with Costello it's impossible to say after just one hearing.
It has become fashionable to compare the slippery punning and the intricate, often convoluted strategies of Costello's lyrics to the work of the great songwriters of the '20s and '30s, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Lorenz Hart. Yet for all the evident correspondences — the elaborate wordplay and internal rhyming, the sudden shifts in point of view, the sharpness about love and sex — the implications of his songs could not be more different, There is a buoyancy in the language of these earlier writers that, even at their darkest, in, say, "Down in the Depths (On the Ninetieth Floor)" or "It Never Entered My Mind," keeps their characters clear of the thorny situations they sing about. But perhaps because he freezes them during moments of crisis rather than in the bittersweet aftermath, and because he is most concerned with the power struggles within relationships, the people Costello writes about almost always find themselves baffled and stuck. "I'm talking about being a complete loser. That's something new to the rock idiom," he boasted in one of his first interviews. And there is nothing in Porter and Kern that resembles his relentless conflation of public and private affairs. This is at its shrewdest on Armed Forces, where songs like "Two Little Hitlers," "Chemistry Class," "Party Girl," and "Green Shirt" map out extremes in political and personal life simultaneously; bedrooms dissolve into boardrooms in his songs, Much as they do in Fassbinder films. Costello's wit is not so much generous and releasing as it is nasty and suffocating: "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor / You've got to cut it out," he once wrote. The wordplay seems yet another symptom of his characters' desperate imbalance, rather than a means of rising above it. Costello plots the tensions between a sophisticated lyric tradition and a sense of the world that is almost its opposite. As in the music, it is his conflicts that shape his authority, his contradictions that allow for his mastery.