As if to rub home his almost limitless capacity for irony, Elvis Costello began his National Stadium bash by playing a tape of the bitter furious single "Pills and Soap" by The Imposter.
What followed in the next one hour and fifty minutes demonstrated that the connection between this man and his work is umbilical. There was no artifice about this event; no shape-throwing or curtain-culling condescension. It came straight from the Almost Blue — straight from the soul of this modest genius who could no more be an imposter than Margaret Thatcher could tomorrow decide that socialism had merits.
Elvis Costello presented the pop song as exhortation, as pain-relieving balm, as critical appreciation and social comment. He demolished the pretentions and facades that decorate pop performance; he wouldn't lie because he couldn't lie. Many times shivers painted the spines of the crowd: a desperate "Kid about It" performed without guitar, a cruel "Clowntime is Over" and a bitter "Possession." Elvis and his voice put life on trial and found it to be innocent but guilty.
I hadn't seen Dec since St. Patrick's Day 1977 when he ripped up the Ulster Hall in the then frenzy of his increasing popularity. He and his band seemed to have discovered, even then, the fatal tug between skill and subterfuge. Into every dream home their melodies were welcomed, only to say that they'd come to piss on the carpet. Six years later the runt has a better suit and thankfully he's kept the services of the best band in the world. Otherwise, all he has now is more time, more songs and more to be angry about.
There was an awful realisation in his closing sermons, "Clowntime is Over," "Let them all Talk," "Watch Your Step" and "Olivers Army" (just a few) that we are headed into times of increasing regulation and militarism, into barbarism and authoritarianism. Costello took the personal out of his politics and gave it the present and (hopefully not) the future. I don't believe his selection was accidental: for his British tour this show should spread fear like herpes, should aggravate listeners to socialism. His version of "Shipbuilding," the already classic tune, whispered into our ears the awful, awful threat of militaristic imperialism; "Well I ask you / The boys say that they're going to take me to task / but I'll be back by Christmas / "Someone got filled in / For saying that people get killed in / The results of our shipbuilding".
But to say that, is also to say this: Elvis Costello at The National Stadium showed himself to be human, oh, all too human, and he decimated the fictions upon which we build our lives in the hope that realisation might arrive before we are all consigned as fodder. The tenderness with which he sang "Kid about It" and indeed, many of the songs that in recorded versions seem so ugly and impatient, revealed a rare genuineness.
But there was no submission: this little man never diminished his own personality, never sunk Declan in the personae of his songs. We had to conclude that the man and his work rest head and shoulders above anything else, because he can stand four-square behind all he has done without embarassment. Old gems like "Hand in Hand" and new gems like "The World and his wife" relate only a career of staggering wealth (non-financial) extravagant lyricism (not appreciated) and delicious musicianship (not rewarded). It's really quite plain: if you blend Dylan's wit with Van Morrison's swing, you must arrive at Elvis Costello: this is where the train of skill and style wakes up, this is where the result bears fruit.
This man is deadly: parables set in aspic melodies, pleadings opened in jazz mumbling. He even melted the O'Jays' "Backstabbers" into one of his own outfits, and later brought the TKO horns on to loosen the foundations.
I assure you — it's the Real Thing.