Elvis Costello may try to look dapper in that dark suit and those tinted glasses, but his fans know better. Beneath that gentlemanly exterior is a songwriter whose specialty is zoning in on suppressed emotions, clammy palms and sad, sick obsessions — the residue of failure, rejection and betrayal. His music doesn't rage, it hisses.
The Costello who visited House of Blues on Sunday, in a free show sponsored by WXRT, was not "the angry young man" of old, because that was always a bit of a media construct anyway. But he was the rock 'n' roll Elvis, fronting a four-piece band called the Impostors (actually, just a variation on his old backing group, the Attractions, with bassist Davey Faragher substituting for Bruce Thomas) and he was in terrific form.
But it wasn't always pretty to look at: Steve Nieve jabbed and poked at his array of keyboards as if prodding a nest of snakes; Costello played hunchback guitar solos that lurched and coughed, spastic explosions of notes; even the tick of Pete Thomas' hi-hat seemed abrupt, sinister, and Faragher jettisoned the busy style of his predecessor to create a thick foundation, as if stuffing the songs in the basement of the sound spectrum to keep them out of sight of polite company.
Among the post-Dylan generation of songwriters, few embrace the bile as enthusiastically as Costello, and even fewer are so eager to scrape away the veneer of rock-star cool and reveal the needy misanthrope within. There's a lot of talk among his acolytes about the singer's punning wordplay, his gift of lyrical gab, but cleverness wears out its welcome quicker than an MTV veejay can say "Barenaked Ladies." What makes Costello's best songs stick isn't the shtick, but the deep, often unpleasant emotions lurking beneath the facile pop surfaces.
"When I Was Cruel No. 2" found him choking on the aftertaste of a relationship. The music was a crude but intoxicating snippet of an Italian pop song, looped over and over again as Costello's mind wandered back to the days when "love was so much easier" because he didn't care about anyone's feelings, least of all his lover's. On the soul ballad "Tart," the most extravagantly musical moment occurred when Costello lingered over the word "lie." It's a word central to the Costello lexicon, and he lovingly turned it into a multisyllabic vocal flight.
The songs from his latest album, When I Was Cruel, reduced rock to its most primitive elements, as if the singer were flushing out of his system the ballad-heavy remains of the last seven years, when he worked with Burt Bacharach and the opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter, among others. Several of the new songs are built around a single chord, and Costello reveled in the space it afforded him as a guitarist and singer. "15 Petals" droned, but "Dust" packed a vicious wallop, and "Tear Off Your Own Head" built to a climactic theremin solo by Nieve, an unnerving high-end whine that served as the only logical conclusion to the song's mounting sense of hysteria.
The singer also focused on older songs that emphasized emotional impact over musical complexity. "Uncomplicated" allowed Thomas to tattoo the trap kit and trample the thin melody, all the instruments falling in behind him on a rampage. Costello's guitar riff on "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" suggested a spider on a window pane, "Lipstick Vogue" burrowed through a claustrophobic cloak of keyboards thrown over it by Nieve, and "You Belong to Me" was the theme from "Batman" as re-imagined by the Marquis de Sade. The 10-minute "I Want You" was of a piece with "Alibi," ballads as nasty as a bicuspid extraction, Costello bringing the songs to a near whisper as if to prolong the torture. It was almost too much, but then the jilted lovers-turned-stalkers who star in Costello's songs aren't known for their restraint. For those who can stand it, Costello is scheduled to return June 8 to the Chicago Theatre.
His opening act, the Waco Brothers, deserves an encore too. The Chicago sextet, comprised mostly of British expatriates, played nuclear-strength country-punk. Ironically, their lineup includes Steve Goulding, who played drums on the original version of Costello's "Watching the Detectives," which was reprised Sunday. Goulding has only become more accomplished since then, his self-effacing feel for the just-right fill and the dynamic roll putting the wallop in the Wacos' attack.