It's not easy trying to explain Elvis Costello to someone born after, say, his 1977 debut album My Aim is True, or Get Happy (1980), or Blood and Chocolate (1986) — his three finest albums, give or take Imperial Bedroom (1982), Brutal Youth (1994) or even The Delivery Man (2004), all rich collections of songs that make it clear it's not easy being Elvis Costello. For someone who essentially makes melodramatic post-Presley beat music he seems to think far too much.
What is he? A 50-year-old expunk who in his way was probably angrier than Rotten; a bolshy showman who refuses to be defined by a handful of classic pop songs he wrote 25 years ago that were in a way sharper and dreamier than anything comparable by Lennon and McCartney; a precious musicologist; moody bastard; disappointed romantic. Overrated. Underrated. Grumpy old man. Sentimental Mr Diana Krall. A dilettante whose restlessness has seen him work with the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Anne Sofie von Otter and Tony Bennett. The clown who's appeared in the Spice Girls movie and The Spy Who Shagged Me.
At the Hammersmith Apollo, he was some of the above, but mostly the performer with a chip on his shoulder, an eye on his legacy, ice in his veins, love on the tip of his tongue, and a country, rock 'n' roll and/or pop song in his heart. Black-suited as always, with glittery show-biz shoes and the oddly jaunty air of a disreputable undertaker, he delivered the kind of punchy guitared-up rock 'n' soul show for those who would put the Brodsky and Bacharach albums at the bottom end of his 21 albums. He just got on with the comfortably uncomfortable job of being the Elvis who can be as demanding as Sondheim, as caught up in himself as Dylan, as surly as Reed, as social as Elton and as emotional as Cash.
He found ways to please both himself and the crowd, mostly by playing more than 30 songs that covered his entire career. He smuggled in all of The Delivery Man, bit by bit (so the evening's entertainment wasn't overwhelmed by what is essentially a gothic documentary about fear and loathing in a violent world). He played enough of the early hits to satisfy the cravings of the nostalgic, flashing just enough of his temper to make "Chelsea," "Detectives" and "Pump It Up" interesting. He raced from 1976 to 2002 to 1984 in the blink of an ex-popstar's eye and twisted his early "Alison" around a bit of late Elvis Presley. There was a discreet reminder of the merits of "Shipbuilding" as the greatest pop song of the past 25 years, at least in the real world, and he wondered once more "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" as if he really meant it. What is Elvis Costello? He is his songs.