Elvis Costello and Britain have abandoned each other. His songs have barely mentioned the old country since 2004’s “Needle Time” recalled “the time I started to tire of those sour English”.
Living abroad since 1989, unaccountably contemptuous of the once-adoring British music press, and furious at home crowds only wanting ancient hits, the connection with his public here snapped. His audiences are now mostly around his own age of 60, the replenishing, youthful fans who flock to inspect Dylan and other icons apparently ignorant of the most prodigious writer of fine songs in British history. Tonight shows it’s their loss.
This Brighton gig early in a 21-date solo UK tour continues Costello’s more frequent and friendly returns to British stages. There is great, mutual affection with his loyal old fans, the stubborn remnant of a different England to the one which docilely let the Tories back in. Costello himself is as kind and gentle as he’s ever been, even during his most acidic songs. There is enormous fondness in the room.
Brighton is the city of Max Miller, and Costello recalls the Cheeky Chappie as he offers hilarious anecdotes to “the weird sex capital of Sussex”. An imminent autobiography has sharpened yarns such as the Mexican infidelity which inspired the writing of “Accidents Will Happen”, with its guilty line “I know what I’ve done”. The song ends with the crowd whispering “I know” back at him, like some sweaty nightmare. A brand new song about a triangle of complex love transactions, sung in a voice of bitter female experience, has the telling simplicity much of his recent work lacks. “He has an awful lot of money,” the woman tells her old lover of his replacement. “The past can be bought/And then erased.” Costello can still swing a punch to the gut. On “When I Was Cruel”, strummed with deceptive gentleness while sitting cross-legged, he lets its lyrical blades about a hellish media party slip in almost too softly to feel.
“Shipbuilding” sounds McCartneyesque at the piano, as a scattered few stand to respect this perfect anti-Falklands War song, from a time when such sentiments seemed rock music’s point. Costello’s ageing crowd also understand as he sinks into deep showbiz memories of teenage Blackpool gigs with his father, who sang “If I Had A Hammer” on the Royal Variety Performance stolen by The Beatles.
By the time Sixties footage of his dad looking the very spit of Costello screens, as the singer’s brothers appear for harmonies freighted with fraternal emotion, this gig has become about more deep-rooted English feelings than punk. The GI Bride heartbreaker “American Without Tears” blurs into the clubland numbness of “Pump It Up”, into “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Then “Oliver’s Army” treads again on live danger-lines of race, joblessness and false patriotism. Costello used to sneer with righteous rage. Now he is a profound showbiz veteran, from a country which should embrace him again.