This just may be Elvis Costello's final tour.
No, no — he's not hanging up his music career, not by any stretch of the imagination. But after two decades as a regular — if occasionally low-key — presence on the pop concert scene, Costello is ready to branch out, to ply the musical education he's given himself the last couple of years.
The idea of never again playing rock onstage is far froth mournful, Costello says — and is, in fact, quite cathartic.
"There's a tremendous feeling knowing this may be the last time I play these songs in this way," he says. "I'm just not making any plans. Every year, I've said, 'I'll be back next year.' This time, I can't say that. And I'm not just being melodramatic."
Besides putting together All This Useless Beauty — the lauded spring release that features his versions of songs he originally wrote for other artists — Costello has spent recent musical life, immersing himself in a swath of colors: Projects include collaborations with jazz innovators the Jazz Passengers, pop songwriting patriarch Burt Bacharach and a classical ensemble (for a vocal rendition of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night).
"To walk through all these doors and stay for only a day is very uplifting and fires you up to want to take some of it with you," Costello says, looking past this tour's September finale. "When I catch my breath and think about what to write next, some of that education, the energy of responding to other people's music, is going to come into play."
That could mean an extended teaming with Bacharach. Their recent writing experience reminded Costello that the strongest displays of passion are often found in the simplest sounds.
"His best records are pretty amazing things," Costello says. "They don't involve any loud guitars or rocking, but they do involve intense emotions — and restraint that gives you power, which rock 'n' roll doesn't even begin to challenge. Despite the gentleness of the musical texture, it's rawer emotionally because you're so much more exposed."
Costello is reveling in that raw exposure on this tour. Performing again with longtime supporting players the Attractions, Costello is doing everything he can — including using a two-piece drum kit and unwieldy guitars — to put more space into the sound.
"Somebody said yesterday we've discovered a new ambient zydeco groove," Costello says, laughing. "But it's really keeping with the way we played originally. The songs have that atmosphere that perhaps isn't there when you do the big stadium, rock 'n' roll sound. The slinky feel of my early records has been brutalized by playing in big venues over my career."
The new liberation has given Costello license to pull some old tunes out for display. At a New York show last week, the band whipped up "The Loved Ones" for the first time since it appeared on Imperial Bedroom in 1982.
So even if he never returns to playing the quick-and-sour pop sizzlers that mark his 20-year career, Costello says he's not just rejecting his past. But his eyes — and ears — are certainly on the future.
"This may not please everybody because people get nervous — even angry — when you move from a previous notion," be says. "But you just have to address the audience — there's a massively curious audience for music that the business just doesn't serve.
"I want a moment of contemplation in the middle of a concert. I would think most people have gotten past the simple impulse of bashing their heads onstage all night."