Elvis Costello always has been a master of metamorphosis, passing effortlessly from punk to hard rock, reggae, country and Tin Pan Alley and working with artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and Aimee Mann.
His latest recording, a five-EP box set titled Costello & Nieve (Warner Bros.) is a live and unplugged collection of songs spanning his 19-year career — hardly a revolutionary concept.
But instead of acoustically rehashing old ground, Costello has once again charted wonderful new turf, adding odd twists to old tunes and polishing jagged edges from more recent releases, including tracks off last year's album, All This Useless Beauty.
There's all the minimalist urgency of Costello's early work here and all the cynicism, too. But Costello's phrasing is subtler, in keeping with his 42 years. And with only his guitar and Steve Nieve's elegant piano as backup, his wounded, off-kilter crooning sounds more introspective than ever. Bootlegs aside, you won't find a Costello recording more up close and personal than this
Costello & Nieve, which contains about two hours of music, was recorded during the duo's acoustic club tour in May.
Each disc features songs from a different stop — the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Fillmore in San Francisco, the Park West in Chicago, the Paradise in Boston and the Supper Club in New York City.
The discs are sprinkled with sentimental favorites, including "Watching the Detectives," which the duo has reshaped from reggae to boogie-woogie, and a rousing "The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes " But many new songs shine just as bright, such as "The Other End of the Telescope," a haunting waltz that Costello wrote with Mann, and the bittersweet "Poor Fractured Atlas."
Costello even manages to sound graceful committing a medley. Working with two of his favorite themes, disillusion and rejection, he segues seamlessly from "Alison" into "Living a Little, Laughing a Little," "Tracks of My Tears," "Tears of a Clown" and "No More Tearstained Make-Up" before concluding with "Clowntime Is Over."
Costello rarely moves out of strum mode on his guitar — in one exception, he flatpicks a snippet of Joseph Haydn's German national anthem into "Little Atoms." It's Nieve, an original member of the Attractions who has played intermittently with Costello since 1977, who fuels the instrumental engine. Moving from tinkling cabaret to hammering rock to crystalline neo-classical progressions, Nieve sets each song's mood without stealing Costello's quirky thunder.
The package contains a few duds; "My Dark Life," in particular, seems to last 70 minutes rather than seven. But Costello's off-color quips are ample compensation.
"People are always asking me, 'What does that song mean?'" Costello muses after warbling the title track from All This Useless Beauty, which contains some of the best lyrics he's written in years. Then he continues: "If I could say it in other words than are in the song, I would've written another song, wouldn't I?"