It's a good time to be Elvis Costello.
With a newfound creative spirit and a singing voice that sounds better than it ever has, rock's most literate punk says he feels a "strange kind of focus now that I'm doing this in a different arena."
That arena is the world of elegant pop, in which Costello immersed himself during a collaboration with classic-pop songsmith Burt Bacharach. The pairing spawned last year's warm Painted from Memory album.
On the road this summer with pianist Steve Nieve Costello says he's rediscovering his own songs.
"I change the set quite radically from night to night," he says. "I'm getting pretty tuned in to what songs people want to hear. Maybe they picked up the thread of my story with 'Everyday I Write the Book' or even Painted, but I try to structure it so that it shows something of the past."
For an artist whose musical reputation has often been prickly and sharp, Costello seems to have stumbled onto a more amicable spot. He's comfortable with his older work, allowing him to confidently declare that "no way is our show a nostalgia event."
"Even a song that's 20 years old," he says, "the way I sing it now, it becomes very much of the moment."
At Saturday's Guinness Fleadh festival in Chicago, Costello provided a glimpse of what they'll play tonight at Meadow Brook. Simple and pleasant, smooth and casual, Costello and Nieve sauntered through chestnuts from the catalog: "Accidents Will Happen," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea."
Also featured was "God Give Me Strength," Costello's first collaboration with Bacharach, written for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart. Set into its new, bare arrangement — tasteful piano and acoustic guitar — the song and others from the Costello-Bacharach pairing took on a new spirit onstage.
"For Steve and myself, it gives us such incredible freedom," says Costello of the performance setup. "Obviously central to the show are songs from Painted. It's very natural to play them in that style and the response has been amazing. It's easier to appreciate why the instrumentation is there and it underscores aspects in a song, quite literally."
The move was perhaps inevitable: Indeed, last time Costello was through Detroit, with the Attractions in 1996, he hinted very strongly that he was tiring of the big guitar-bass-and-drum paradigm.
Ask him if he's creatively restless and he's not sure that's the right word for it.
"I see it as being curious," says Costello. "What is death is complacency and staying with just the thing you know. 'Restless' suggests you're dissatisfied. I'm just curious about things, about a strain of music. Hopefully I can absorb enough of something to write credibly — even if it's just a nuance, something I remember from a record."
That doesn't mean he doesn't consider himself rock 'n' roll anymore. Costello is sure he's closer to the heart of the rock spirit than much of what gets labeled that way.
"It proves that really the industry — and maybe even musicians — have conspired through lack of imagination" to dilute the phrase, he says. "I hear 'rock 'n' roll,' but I hear it from the people who are bold enough to jumble up the pieces, like Tom Waits, and mix them up in ways other people haven't done."
Among the most notable results of his pairing with Bacharach can be found in Costello's voice, that svelte baritone that has learned to twist and turn its way through a host of new melodic structures. The difference should be apparent even to a casual listener and it's infused even the older work with a subtle soulfulness.
Costello, 45, figures he always had the goods — it's just that his youthful work didn't provide the right framework for their use.
"I had a lot of things on my mind when I started, so the songs had a lot of words in them," he says. "There were good melodies, like 'Alison.' But I didn't have many melodies where you had to linger on the notes for very long. The songs were fast and furious and people got the idea I could only sing that way."
The delivery has relaxed, thanks in great part to Bacharach, whose own songwriting work has been interpreted by such understated vocalists as Dionne Warwick.
"One would hope you get better as you get older," says Costello. "I've certainly gotten better from experience."