"Say goodbye / Baby can't you act your age?"
Elvis Costello, more than 16 years after he and the Attractions first blitzed through North America, is still swatting at lovers who jilted him.
"All the Rage," the new song from which the lines above are taken, was a consummate performance Saturday at the World. Nobody since Dylan has done bile better than Costello.
But once Costello and the Attractions were the music. Now they offer a perfect copy of it. A line like "I want to bite the hand that feeds me" from "Radio, Radio" sounded like something an angry young man would say about the record business in 1977. Now it sounds like nostalgia at best, hypocrisy at worst — business can't be all bad when you can charge $40 a ticket, as Costello did Saturday.
Undeniably, there was a certain thrill in watching the quartet shred through two hours of music, after seven sometimes acrimonious years apart. If anything, they're playing better than ever. Off with the crack of Pete Thomas' snare drum, the furious opening combination of "No Action," "High Fidelity" and "The Beat" was followed by a new song, "Pony Street," then a staggering exercise in emotional vertigo, "Beyond Belief."
Bruce Thomas' bass trolled just beneath the surface, searching for a break in the anxious whirlpool conjured up by Steve Nieve's keyboards. Then Costello's guitar, every bit as crude as his lyrics are elaborate, swooped in with all the delicacy of a kamikaze.
But the band's playing also has become flashier and fussier, with only drummer Thomas holding the line. Costello seemed particularly eager to show off the increasing range and maturity of his voice. While he crooned "Alison" and indulged in some pseudo-scat vocalizing on "New Lace Sleeves," Nieve piled on the keyboard frills.
As one of the more clever songwriters in pop, fond of piling up puns, like so many cars in a highway chain collision, Costello occasionally needs to be saved from his own excesses. Once the Attractions could be counted on to be his antagonists, now they indulge him and the audience.
And what the audience got was baroque popcraft of unusual sophistication and energy, a well-played greatest-hits revue-and nothing more. Maybe that's enough. But anyone who saw Costello when these songs seemed like fresh wounds couldn't help but recognize how emotionally hollow they seem now.