"Radio's changed I since was here the last time," Elvis Costello noted Saturday night onstage at the Aragon Ballroom. "It's gotten worse." So went the introduction to "Radio, Radio," a typically Costello-esque snipe at the Top 40 fossilism that the singer says has put the clamps on pop creativity for years — radio being, Costello says, "in the hands of such a lot of fools, trying to anesthetize the way you feel."
But this time around, Costello (born Declan Patrick McManus) is, in a sense, biting the hand that feeds him, though the stance no doubt is one that pleases him. His third album, Armed Forces, has received (from "progressive" stations) enough of the airplay so necessary for commercial success to boost sales past the requisite 500,000-sold mark, qualifying it for a gold record.
Of all the new wave (a term that's already old hat) artists, Costello has met with by far the most commercial success, turning out a sound that combines a finely honed sense of pop craftsmanship with an undercurrent of anger that threads its way through many of his short, pithy songs. Though he may write about romances and relationships (most of them failures), there is nothing of the romantic about him; instead, his best numbers are both acerbic and witty.
Backed by a three-piece band whose rhythms are reminiscent of '50s rock in their urgent energy and yet is highly contemporary in its melodic hooks, Costello puts on a show (to be repeated before an already sold-out house Wednesday at Park West) that is distinctive and often appealing. But I do not, like some of my friends, find Costello irresistible.
There is a brittleness about much of his music, its energy self-contained and almost remote. His pigeon-toed walk is a novelty that's worn thin. And the anger that seems to be as much a part of his stage presence as his silver lame coat often seems merely silly; he comes off simply like some schnook in a snit. Still, often enough — to paraphrase one of Costello's songs — his aim is true.