As he raced, transfixed by lurid green and magenta spotlights, through the familiar cruelty of the opening "Lipstick Vogue" it seemed that Elvis Costello had renounced the benevolent posture of recent months (expressed in Almost Blue, his album of country songs recorded in Nashville) and returned to his earlier stage persona, which might well be summarized by borrowing Truffaut's description of Hitchcock: "The man we love to be hated by."
Costello shares with Hitchcock a sly wit and a love of trickery. Both force the audience to participate, placing us in the dock alongside the ostensible subject; they inspect our behaviour, question our moral certainties and lull us with comfortable illusions before revealing the knife. The need to confound our expectations is an article of faith.
The tone of Wednesday night's concert was set by the predominance of the darkly passionate material from Trust, Costello's last album of self-composed songs, and by several new pieces which took up the same thematic and textural threads. Among the latter, the least distinguished seemed to be "Human Hands," a plodding anthology of his minor-key cliches; the most immediately exhilarating may have been titled "Shabby Doll" and was a production number in the chanson noir style of "Watching the Detectives" and "Shot With His Own Gun," a subdued first verse and many dramatic pauses building to a sophisticated and enveloping richness of atmosphere. The Trust songs fared well, notably "New Lace Sleeves" and "Big Sister's Clothes," the latter dying gracefully in a fading blue light to close the main portion of the show.
The extracts from Almost Blue included a polished reading of the delightful. "A Good Year for the Roses," but the more exposed balladry of "Sweet Dreams" revealed a strained tone and inaccurate pitching as Costello struggled to hold sustained notes against the sparse cocktail-lounge accompaniment provided the Attractions (whose pianist, Steve Nieve, performed with outstanding energy and adaptability throughout the evening).
The defensive hubris which Costello uses to protect his emotional vulnerability, and the impatience which leads him to butt songs together, allowing scant opportunity for the audience to express its appreciation, will probably always make his concerts tense affairs, to which the appropriate response is sincere but somewhat detached admiration. He overrode this, however, with his fourth encore, stripping Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding" of its last remaining ironies and sending us warmed into the night.