Elvis Costello's rendezvous with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday seemed in prospect to be a typically courageous and provocative gesture by an artist renowned for his fruitful avoidance of convention. When it was over, despite the audience's noisy rapture, one was left with very mixed feelings indeed.
For all his early relationship with rock's new wave, Costello has often shown an affinity with crooners and torch songs, perhaps thereby revealing a nostalgic fondness for the music of his father, the dance-band singer Ross McManus. It was to be expected, then, that the orchestral resources would be turned in this direction, as well as towards that of his recent flirtation, with country music, and so it proved.
After a first half in which he and his regular band, the Attractions, defeated the notorious acoustical deficiencies of the Albert Hall by concentrating on muted ballads (of which the new "Kid About It" and "Shabby Doll" were outstanding), the orchestral section began in a deeply distressing manner, with wholly unsuitable arrangements (by Robert Kirby, who also conducted) grafted on to some of Costello's finest, most complex songs.
Sighing strings and comical low brass drew the sting from "Shot With His Own Gun," while prissy decorations cancelled the dramatic effect of slowing "I Can't Stand Up" to a crawl. Ineffably banal percussive effects trivialized "Watching the Detectives" (think what Bernard Herrman, in his "Psycho" vein, might have done with this song!), and there was a hilarious false start to "Sweet Dreams," caused, when Kirby and the steel guitarist, John McFee — neither of whom had the ball — sold each other a dummy.
The standard improved enormously when Costello moved on to the simpler contours of the country songs (notably "A Good Year for the Roses") and to his own brilliantly plain ballad, "Alison." Clearly encouraged by these appropriately medium-rare arrangements, and by the sheer musical mass, he produced the very best singing I have heard from him.
That apart, it was really nothing special, and when one considers the work with similar resources of Burt Bacharach, Mike Stoller and many others, Costello seems to have been ill-advised and poorly served. At least it may now be out of his system.