So at last Elvis was ready to unveil to us his new work, plus a few old favourites, for his return at the intimate Astoria.
There was tension in the air around the reception of the new songs. Usually we've had time to get to know a Costello record before the accompanying dates. But with regards his direction, I for one am happy to take it on trust wherever he's off to. I mean the worst thing that can happen is that it'll broaden my mind. The live experience often provides further possibilities on from the recordings of new songs.
Elvis's amusing asides and stories also bring out lovely nuances or sly false trails — though there was little of this at the Astoria, where Elvis played a lot of new and radically different sounding material that we were very unfamiliar with. Perhaps to make it more digestible he interspersed them with a raucous core Attractions repertoire drawn from My Aim is True, This Year's Model and Blood & Chocolate, during which a good time was had by all.
It's telling that it's his most raw past work that the new songs are vibing to most. Then again, it probably doesn't hurt the sales of the current batch of reissues. (Incidentally, my resolve not to buy all of these — you know, like how many times are we supposed to pay for this stuff? — lasted all of two days).
The new album is quite bleak in places, full of mortality, human frailty and despair ("Hang my head and shut my eyes / I can't see justice twisted") — perhaps an Elvis equivalent to Dylan's Time Out of Mind. "Episode of Blonde" owes a debt to Tom Waits, borrowing his obtuse and perverse style, in the same way "My Mood Swings" from The Big Lebowski soundtrack did. However it has a very accessible side, not least in "45," which frequent concert attendees will already know. It should surely be a hit if there's any justice, which I know is doubtful on past experience — a point made in abundance on the new record in the beautiful "Soul For Hire" (sadly missing from the live set).
A lot of the new material seems to spring from the same source as "The Bridge I Burned": loops and dissonant repetitive chords cross with an achingly melodic chorus, while the verses are elliptical and illusive, evocative (surreal even) rather than direct. Interestingly, the sole concert performance of "The Bridge I Burned" (that I know of anyway) was at Meltdown 2001 in London, alongside many songs from the new album in solo and duo versions. Elvis employed all manner of distortions and loops, kicking up an almighty racket.
"Hurry Down Doomsday" and several other noisy oldies received similar treatment, until Costello unveiled the Imposters and kicked through a near identical Attractions set to that sprinkled through the list at the Astoria: "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," "Waiting For The End of The World," "I Hope You're Happy Now" and others had lost none of their bite, being greeted with delight.
Costello also played a much shorter set than in recent times. Previously he's stayed on stage for something towards two and a half hours, playing a vast range of songs. While it's never unwelcome to hear him pull even more surprises out, it can be as exhausting for us as it must be for him. It certainly overloads the more casual fan.
At the Astoria Elvis left the building before an hour and a half had passed. These initial concerts seem as much promotional outings as part of the tour. In playing a more narrow set, perhaps Elvis is mindful that, as well as the faithful, he's playing to his more fickle audience along with potential new listeners as well.
Uncut magazine's album review suggests that Costello is becoming more of an acquired taste, not least for some of his older fans. One wonders if When I Was Cruel will pick up new ones... I went to the concert with my 19 year old nephew, who more usually enjoys indie music mp3's via his mobile phone. He was mightily impressed with Costello's presence and passion — and with how tight and in control the band were. The trio playing was as skilful as ever, packing in their trademark devices — like holding back for half a line of unaccompanied lyric before seamlessly crashing in on the third beat. They sounded, as Costello observed once, incredibly wound up yet totally offhand all at the same time.
The Attractions (and one Imposter) contribute parts that show how they've taken on the challenge of their leader's latest enthusiasms. If the "bass player" in the Attractions was uninterested in taking musical ideas further and playing through gritted teeth, as Costello has written in recent sleevenotes, then the Imposters are genuinely part of the development of the new music.
Pete Thomas's sturdy inventive rhythm and high tuned drums (so prevalent since Brutal Youth) are much in evidence. Davey Faragher bops along with great enthusiasm on the older material and slots in with ease and precision on the new songs. Steve Nieve especially adds much, from his usual off-beat trills to stretched out Hammond work and, in "When I Was Cruel No. 2," teasing gorgeous Erik Satie quotes. The brass, courtesy of Roy Nathanson, more New York than the New Orleans of past collaborators The Dirty Dozen, makes for sharpened momentum — especially on "15 Petals."
For Elvis's part, at times the words become almost musical. He delights in their repetition until they transform into pure sound. "Tart," "Dust," "Alibi": the words revolving round as Costello hypnotically wrings them dry.
"When I Was Cruel No. 2" also casts an eye over a renewed acquaintance from 1982, a newspaper editor (an occupation never high in Elvis's popularity rating, let's be honest). Unfinished spiteful business — we've been here before for sure, although Costello's rarely been so direct in naming place and time, mirroring the way we never fully relinquish resentments, despite reflections on letting go (like the one Elvis recently made in the recent liner notes to "All The Rage"). Although the newspaper editor is a real person (Elvis wisely declines to say which tabloid), you can rarely tell whether or not his songs approach autobiography. In interviews Costello has vehemently dismissed the idea that he's writing about himself and then gone on to talk about candid personal associations in his lyrics and music. Certainly some of his songs are beautifully drawn fictions, but many come across very much in the first person — and that includes the cover versions!
Rage has turned to mournful resignation by the end of the record, Elvis fading into "Radio Silence," much as he wanted to vanish by the close of All This Useless Beauty: "From this distance it's hard to tell the difference... between a poet and a hack / Maintaining radio silence from now on." Goodbye cruel world indeed.
The Astoria encores included "Alibi," "Episode of Blonde" and finally as fearsome and glassy eyed a rendition of "I Want You" as he's ever given. Elvis soared, easily matching a performer like Jacques Brel at his best, inhabiting the songs, wringing every nuance from them, following the feelings to their logical, sometimes scary, conclusions. After witnessing one of Elvis's passionate performances like this, you're just left thinking "this guy really means it."