From the acceptable face of punk to Brodsky Quartet collaborator, Elvis Costello has played many parts in a career spanning more than two decades. Last year he donned another new hat on Painted from Memory, a smooth and sophisticated collection of songs co-written with the sainted Burt Bacharach. Many critics made it their album of the year. This reviewer, who has never understood the easy-listening revival, wondered why a man whose only competitor as Britain's finest songwriter is Richard Thompson was working with the king of sickly-sweet American MOR.
Costello's first British tour since the album offered the opportunity to see if the spit and snarl of old had been totally displaced by polite cocktail-lounge tinkling. Thankfully it took only minutes to dispel such fears as he launched into a caustic version of "Accidents Will Happen." Accompanied only by his guitar and the piano of Steve Nieve he cleverly proceeded to mix half a dozen songs from the new album with a treasure chest of old favourites in a show lasting two and a half hours.
In the starker, stripped-down arrangements necessitated by the simplified instrumentation, even the Bacharach numbers sounded greatly improved. Costello's voice was more tart and less artful, conveying a bitter-sweet flavour. On "This House is Empty Now" and "In the Darkest Place," which tackle such subjects as divorce and dashed opportunities, this made it easier to focus on the melancholic imagery of the lyrics. On the new single "Toledo" the heartstopping beauty of the melody, which on the record is drowned out with slinky strings and a girlie chorus, was allowed to shine through.
Dressed in a dark suit and looking more schoolmasterly than ever in his heavy-duty spectacles, Costello grew more spirited as the evening wore on. By midway through, the political anger had resurfaced as he fired off a spiky series of unBacharach-like sentiments, attacking Baroness Thatcher as "a f****** disgrace for supporting that mass murderer" and denouncing Nato spokesman Jamie Shea as "a skilled liar".
Yet there was also humour as he offered a parody of the other Elvis singing "The Drugs Don't Work," and archly insinuated stray lines from standards such as "Fever" and "Twenty-Four Hours to Tulsa" into his own compositions. He was at his best when Nieve was persuaded to curb his ornate arpeggios to create simple and affecting versions of "Alison" and "All This Useless Beauty," and a tough and sinister "Watching the Detectives." "This was written when we were young and impetuous," Costello joked. The ageing is inexorable, but happily he proved that some of that old rock 'n' roll impetuosity remains.