Love has long been a recurring theme in Elvis Costello's recording career. It seems to have pounced on him with a vengeance. His latest album, North, is inspired by both his relationship to Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall and their shared taste in music. All of which means that if you don't like effusive, syrupy torch songs about losing love and finding it again, North may leave you feeling a little untouched.
It sounds a lot better live — which is fortunate, because Costello plays rather a lot of it. Indeed, he plays rather a lot of everything, plucking classics from his back catalogue, leaving the stage on four separate occasions and performing for almost two and a half hours.
The angry young man who filled his pop with venom and spark seems long-departed. Tonight, darkly suited and slight against the Royal Concert Hall's stage, Costello croons with passion and style, conjuring intimacy with a flickering hand, sparking audience participation and backing off the mic to sing without amplification.
It's a minimal set-up, Costello on vocals and guitar while ex-Attraction Steve Nieve accompanies him on piano. But the arrangements are far from simple, the two musicians weaving fine lines around each other. It all means that new songs like "You Left Me in the Dark" and "Still" are poignant rather than cloying. There's nothing duller than an enthusiasm you can't share, and few things finer than finding that, actually, this romantic stuff can be pretty damn enchanting.
The older tracks are sharp indeed, Costello's guitar cutting through the applause as he rushes from song to song. "Accidents Will Happen" is trim and sprightly, "God's Comic" focused despite a detour into sumo wrestling and vegetables, and "Shipbuilding" falls into an awed silence.
Restraint is never too high on the priority list of the loved-up, and Costello does go on a little too long. Giving the fans their money's worth is one thing, but cramp will set in no matter how much fun you're having.
Indulgent it may be, but the unarguable high points of this pop veteran's set make physical discomfort a manageable problem. What's more important is that Costello has made a middle-aged man in young love look dignified and rather glorious.
At the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000), tomorrow. Then touring.