On his new album, Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello declares: "I'm just the shadow of my former selfishness," an extravagant claim for a man who once said that the only emotions he understood were "revenge and guilt" and toyed with the idea of titling his third album Emotional Fascism. But in his recent performances at the Forest Hills tennis stadium and Pier 84 in Manhattan, he proved it to be a truthful one — almost.
He launched his show with a high-octane, high-speed version of "Accidents Will Happen." He and the Attractions, his talented and often unappreciated band, played the song so fast that it seemed as if they were anxious to get on with his newer, less familiar material. And, especially in Manhattan, where the audience was more receptive, his new songs proved to be the highlights of the show. Many of the songs from Imperial Bedroom sounded better live, without the sometimes too elaborate orchestral arrangements of the album. This was particularly true of "Town Cryer" which he did at Forest Hills without his guitar, crooning it Frank Sinatra style, holding the mike-stand as if he would fall over if he let go — a stance that perfectly fit the line "Suddenly you really fall to pieces." The song had an emotional punch that it lacked on the album. Similarly, the gradually mounting tension of "Beyond Belief" had a much bigger payoff in concert.
But equally interesting were a couple of as of yet unreleased numbers, one of which he performed at the end of his two sets at Pier 84. The first was a playful, almost light-cabaret tune called "Imperial Bedroom" (although it doesn't appear on the album of that name just as "Almost Blue" isn't on Almost Blue), which for the first time incorporates some French into his lyrics. If he continues much further in this direction, he may soon be able to take Bobby Short's place at the Cafe Carlyle.
But most impressive is the song that closed the show. Called "Shipbuilding," Costello described it as a "a brand new song" for which he wrote the lyrics though not the music. An anti-imperialist, antiwar ballad, it almost certainly refers to the Falklands — though never directly — and it represents something of a departure in Costello's lyrics in that it relies on a single metaphor to carry the meaning; "shipbuilding" equals empire-building, otherwise the song means exactly what it seems to mean. This directness differs from his earlier songs, especially those on Armed Forces and Get Happy!, which were often like crossword puzzles: you could figure out one word at a time, but you had to keep working on each new word until the whole thing fit together. I'm referring to songs like "Busy Bodies" and "Black and White World" — great songs, and their complexity is part of their greatness, so I'm not suggesting that "Shipbuilding" is superior. It just shows that Costello can be as effective with a fast ball as with a slider or curve.
Almost everyone agrees that Costello is a brilliant lyricist, but what is it that makes him such a compelling performer?
He's certainly not good-looking, but he projects such a distinct image that most people — even those who know nothing of his music — seem to be familiar with his nerdy looks and over-sized glasses. One wouldn't think he has much sex appeal, but a girl on line for the Pier 84 show told me that she "would do anything for just one kiss." I presume she meant from him.
He isn't a very good musician (when he puts down his guitar and just sings the band doesn't sound noticeably diminished) but he has surrounded himself with excellent ones, Steve Nieve, his keyboardist being the standout, and together he and the Attractions are among the tightest bands I've heard.
Although he doesn't have a good voice, he uses his somewhat adenoidal baritone with more subtlety and control than many who do. His vocal range is limited, but his emotional range is not, and his singing has a sincerity and intensity that is unequaled by any of his contemporaries in popular music. In this respect he reminds me of (and I am aware of the overwhelming irony of this comparison) Ray Charles.
The paradox of his calling this man whom he emulates and must greatly admire a "blind jive-ass nigger" or whatever he said; nobody's quite sure) say a lot about Costello; it shows that when he said it during a drunken brawl nearly four years ago he couldn't have liked himself very much. He's worked hard to overcome the effects of that remark, partly in a series of cloyingly apologetic interviews, but more meaningfully through his songs (which is how a singer best expresses himself anyway). His Get Happy! album was a conscious nod to Motown, and interestingly, almost all the songs he did at his New York shows, apart from his own material, were by black artists: a couple of old blues numbers, the O'Jay's "Backstabbers," Smokey Robinson's "Head to Toe." He obviously enjoyed doing them and the audience seemed to enjoy them too; the man likes himself better now.
Because he likes himself better, some of the edge in his music may have been lost. We will probably never hear him snarl "(One of these day's I'm gonna) Pay it Back" quite the same way again — for now he has paid his dues, and been well paid for it. But something of the old Elvis remains, as anyone who heard him sing "Man Out of Time" must be convinced — there's enough venom in that song to satisfy any reasonably normal person.
The truth is that two Elvis Costellos took the stage, but by the end of the show only one remained. The old Elvis Costello (paranoid, vitriolic and filled with self-contempt) has not ceased to exist, but rather has been absorbed into a new, more generous persona. So far his abilities have kept pace with his ambitions, and his arrival by limousine seemed only slightly incongruous, not hypocritical as it would with the Clash. He's put on some weight, and those over-sized glasses don't seem quite as oversized as they once did: he's grown into them.