When Elvis Costello started out during the punk era, the idea of his singing jazzy, orchestral love songs would have seemed like heresy. But Costello was never an outright punk rocker, as his habit of covering Burt Bacharach songs at concerts showed. His father played in a leading big band, so the young Elvis grew up listening to lounge music and jazz, influences that resurface fully realised on his latest album North, which is about love.
Although his new songs are full of sighing violins and sinuous orchestral arrangements, he began his show at the Royal Festival Hall accompanied only by longterm bandmate Steve Nieve on piano. It was a sparse musical setting, designed to let Costello's voice do the work. On North, his vocals don't quite match the sophistication of the material, but live they were much more supple. His phrasing and changes in tone were impressively subtle, ranging from Van Morrison-style soul to tender crooning. At times he was every bit the romantic balladeer, although his encouragement of the audience to sing along also reminded one of an old-fashioned cabaret singer.
There's an autumnal mood to his new music, a sense of mingled satisfaction and melancholy, that works well. But as the evening went on, and despite the introduction of the Brodsky Quartet on to the stage, the lack of musical variation was wearying. Even old material such as "Man Out of Time" sounded too sedate without a full backing band. By the end, a reverential atmosphere had settled over the auditorium, not helped by the singer's habit of milking the audience for applause. Costello's mature phase as a crooner is a rewarding one, but it has an indulgent aspect too.