Costello's 340th album (just kidding) begins with a question, sung in a heart-wrenching a cappella voice: Shall we agree / That just this once / I'm gonna change my life?
He then launches into the sweet ballad "The Other End of the Telescope," forming a pairing that serves as a revealing introduction to this mixed bag of hearty, piano-driven rockers and wistful remembrances.
The Englishman's last three albums — including Brutal Youth, his 1994 reunion with the Attractions — were disappointing documents delivered in rapid, shotgun succession. The piss and vinegar of the original, angry Elvis was history; this decade's model seemed to be searching for the old passion, but never really sounded true.
As if responding to the yearning by critics and fans for the old days, Costello has again teamed with the Attractions, the melodic rock outfit that defined his early sound, to much more satisfying effect this time than on Brutal Youth. After the drought, one of rock's all-time songwriters seems to be genuinely reflecting on his life rather than simply punching the clock with new songs.
Having left the brash brawler back at the pub of his youth, Costello (who plays the John Anson Ford Theatre on Monday and the Troubadour on Tuesday with Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve) is settling into the role of an aging popster much more gracefully. The new songs — whose themes range from the challenge of relationships to a continuing distrust of politicians and other authority figures — speak with a renewed vitality and conviction.