More than just a successful team of musicians, Elvis Costello and the Attractions is one of the great brand names of pop, and the renewal of their partnership, after eight years apart, must have been warmly welcomed not least by the Attractions' bank managers. While keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas were spending their time punching the clock as part of the house band on Jonathan Ross’s chat show, and bass player Bruce Thomas was writing his book about how terrible life in the Attractions had been, Costello’s albums became increasingly dense, verbose and eventually wearisome. His last proper shows in London in 1991, when he was backed by an outfit calling itself the Rude 5, earned him the worst reviews of his career.
But time was turned back with surprising enthusiasm at the Albert Hall this week, especially by the sound engineer who, to begin with, achieved an authentically dreadful 1977-vintage mix. With Costello’s voice about as clear as a station tannoy, the drums an ill-defined clatter and the bass inaudible, it sounded like a tinny transistor radio amplified to the pain threshold as the band charged headlong into “No Action”, “The Beat”, “Waiting For The End Of The World” and “Beyond Belief”, all strung together as one breathless opening salvo. The clipped delivery and ear-bruising sound quality was everything the most recherche punk could have wished for.
The sonic fug began to clear as they shifted gear for the more reflective “Sulky Girl”, the first of the songs to be featured from Costello’s current album Brutal Youth, recorded with the Attractions and the best thing he has done in years. Wearing a dark suit and cutting a rather bulkier figure than in his youth, the 38-year-old singer cordially welcomed us to “the first night of the proms” as he exchanged his Fender Jazzmaster for an acoustic guitar and introduced “London’s Brilliant Parade”.
The restless, pent-up energy that has propelled Costello up a variety of artistic cul-de-sacs in recent years has also furnished him with a vast repertoire of material, much of it outstanding, and there were many moments of genuine magic threaded throughout the show. “Shipbuilding”, which he sang without accompanying himself on guitar, conjured a mood of exquisitely languorous heartbreak. “Rocking Horse Road” with its rootsy little riffs and stately finale unfolded with an air of rich, dramatic melancholy. And the roller-coaster sequence towards the end where “My Science Fiction Twin” segued into “Watching The Detectives” and then “You Belong To Me” was a masterfully paced combination of the old and the new.
As with all aspects of his creative work, Costello brought a ferocious intensity to the performance which was both its greatest strength and at times, its undoing. Stretched over two-and-a-quarter hours, the cumulative effect of so many curtly-dispatched songs, fuelled either by boiling anger or dark cynicism, inevitably began to seem like a bit of a barrage.
At the start of the first set of “encores”, Nieve commandeered the Albert Hall organ while beneath him Costello wrestled his way through the slough of despond known as “Favourite Hour”, The brilliant “Lipstick Vogue” which followed found the Thomases speeding off on their impossibly hyperactive bass and drum lines respectively, and somehow incorporating a verse or two of “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” along the way.
By now they were in overdrive, and one wondered quite how the Albert Hall management was ever going to persuade them to leave the stage. “Puppet Girl”, a fast sarcastic pop song which Costello wrote (along with a dozen others) for Wendy James’s ill-fated solo album was dedicated to “all you aspiring pop nymphets out there”. Then the brittle humour gave way to “Alison”, a rare moment of sentimentality and still one of his finest songs. There was still more: “Accidents Will Happen”, a rousing version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding” and a final raving stomp through “Pump It Up”.
The sound was again beginning to fray at the edges, as were some of the crowd, whose days spent leaping about in front of grimy club stages were long gone. But this was the Costello they had come to see; not the pseudo-classical dabbler or the sandwich-board man with hippy beard and trailing hair, but the neat, stroppy maestro of old with his backing band of legend. They were not disappointed.