If you haven't been paying attention, coming across Elvis Costello these days can be a jarring sight: the snotty, angry young new-waver 20 years on, pot-bellied, balding and tuxedo-clad, warbling songs he wrote with Burt Bacharach. Just another faded rocker, touring for the fogies in a low-overhead "unplugged" format, perhaps.
If you have been paying attention, however, you won't be surprised at all: Costello is still defying convention, escaping journalistic pigeonholes and eluding too-easy characterizations, in order to produce compelling and terrific music.
Costello won't have the tux with him when he plays the Aerial Theater this week — that's saved for TV appearances — and he won't have a band, either. He's touring with pianist Steve Nieve, one of the mainstays of Costello's legendary backing band The Attractions.
If the critics (and a limited-edition live CD) are any evidence, the pair put on a highly entertaining show that reinterprets Costello classics such as "Allison" and "Accidents Will Happen" while also featuring some of the great new stuff off Painted from Memory, his recent collaboration with Bacharach.
Painted from Memory couldn't find a place on today's spirit-sapping radio dial, of course, but it's an amazing effort. Costello has an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and an unbridled enthusiasm for popular music of all types done well. He rescues Bacharach from the insipid crap he had been doing and challenges him into rediscovering the rule-breaking meters and melodies that highlighted the best of his '60s work.
The pairing with the not-universally-loved Bacharach has dismayed some fans still mourning the acrimonious breakup of The Attractions, and Costello's subsequent recording of the bland ballad "She" for the Notting Hill soundtrack didn't provide much encouragement.
But it's highly unlikely the restless Costello will spend the remainder of his career acting the part of the suave crooner. The shows with Nieve haven't left rock completely behind. Costello has written, after all, some of rock's most riveting songs. "Watching the Detectives," "Pump It Up" and his incendiary cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" are definitive songs of the punk/new wave era.
So forget about the tux. Costello's not ready to be consigned to the lounge just yet.