"What I do is a matter of life and death." Elvis Costello remarked back in 1978, "I don't choose to explain it of course. I'm doing it and I'll keep doing it until someone stops me forcibly." Back then, in the white heat of the post-punk moment, it was de rigueur to profess one's passionate intensity at every available opportunity, and Costello, in the course of two albums, 1977's My Aim Is True, and 1978's This Year's Model, had staked his place as the King of Caustic. His songs were small, barbed, personal missives, aimed at his exes, his enemies, and the world at large, and tied to a melodic invention that harked back to a songwriting style that long predated punk.
It is heartening to report that, 25 years on, and despite a late career path that has been characterised by a series of intriguing, exotic, but uneven, collaborations — Burt Bacharach, Anne Sofie von Otter, The Brodsky Quartet — he is still "doing it" with a vengeance. This performance was an object lesson in the art of the the angry adult pop song, and a timely reminder that no one else can do adult and angry quite like Elvis Costello.
Clean shaven, and dapper in a dark suit, he looks leaner than of recent years, and greets the adoring crowd with a broad grin — the first signifier that today's Elvis Costello, despite the righteous anger that underpins many of his brand new songs, is enjoying himself on stage in a way that would have seemed inconceivable back in the late Seventies. Flanked by the Imposters — keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, from the Attractions, alongside new boy, bass guitarist, Davey Faragher — he straps on the first of many electric guitars and launches into "My Little Blue Window," from his new album, the wonderfully titled When I Was Cruel. (Much harmless fun can be had from dreaming up other possible album titles in this vein: Sting: When I Was Pompous, for instance, or Geri Haliwell: When I Was Crap.)
Despite the Astoria's murky acoustics, the band seem tight and limber, while Costello's voice, which often seems to strain for effect outside the confines of rock and roll, sounds in fine fettle on this paean to "a lovely hooligan." Without pausing for breath, they attack "Waiting for the End of the World" in a similarly frenetic fashion. "Dear Lord," the singer howls, "I sincerely hope you're coming / Cos you really started something." Written two years before Thatcher came to power, and when Beirut was the main flashpoint for the Middle East's religious war, the song's cri de coeur sounds even more forceful — and desperate — today.
He introduces "Spooky Girlfriend," off the new album, as "a cautionary tale concerning a showbiz weasel." Over Thomas's clattering percussive rhythm, the song's pared narrative wraps an array of dark, complex, overlapping themes — manipulation, obsession, fantasy, lust, power — in a disarmingly beautiful melody. "I want a girl who's helpless and frail," he sings in the guise of an ageing pop svengali, "who won't pull on my ponytail." A few verses later, though, you are left wondering just who's controlling whom: "She says, 'Are you looking up my skirt?' / When you say, 'No' / She says, 'Why not?'." This is vintage Costello: complex, concise, loaded with all manner of dark psycho-sexual subtexts.
"I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," is taken at breakneck speed: a passing blur of the original that seems to suggest he does not want to dwell too long in the past, however stellar that past may be. Then, a brutally propulsive retread "Man Out Of Time" — the pop song as noir romance — suggests exactly the opposite. It continues like this, old and new songs tracing the mere outline of a creative trajectory that now stands as arguably the finest post-punk back catalogue in pop. Surprises come in the shape of a beefed-up "When I Was Cruel No. 2," structured around a looped electronic sample, and sounding like some chance meeting of Ennio Morricone and the best bar band in town. "Dust," which he introduces as "a song about the afterlife," starts off menacing and ends up plain demented, Costello wrenching a cacophony of feedback from his guitar while Nieve's keyboard revisists some long lost Hammer horror soundtrack.
The best, though, is held back till the very end, when, at the culmination of the second encore, he performs the tightrope walk that is "I Want You." As songs about sexual obsession go, it is without par, and tonight Costello imbues every syllable with a mixture of restrained menace and naked plaintiveness. By the end, as he sings the title phrase over and over, moving slowly off mic, the audience falls silent, hanging on every word. This is high drama, and, once again, Costello proves himself the consummate method-actor, portraying obsession, longing, a devotion that borders on the pathological. It is delivered with an intensity of expression that one seldom encounters in the pop arena these days, and, for a brief while, we are all there in the song with him. It is a transformative moment that makes you remember what pop is capable of, but seldom strives for any more.
Right now, Costello remains the ultimate Rennaissance man of pop: he is currently artist in residence at UCLA, has just written his first orchestral score for a dance adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and is working on a film project with American writer and director Neil LaBute. His fabled creative restlessness is such that it sometimes seems to the faithful as if he no longer needs, nor is satisfied by, the altogether more basic aesthetics of rock and roll. On this showing, though, that is definitely, defiantly, not the case, (and, God knows, rock 'n' roll certainly needs him right now). Still raging, still burning, the fortysomething Elvis Costello has finally rediscovered his pop (he)art.