Elvis Costello has been doing brief regional tours of the United States for the past few years, and these "SOLO" tours, as he calls them, have given him opportunity to dig deep into one of modern music's deepest and most intensely satisfying catalogs.
For this year's run, which comes to the Louisville Palace Tuesday, he's added a subtitle: "The Last Year of My Youth" acknowledges his pending 60th birthday in August.
"I only officially attached that to the two shows I played at Carnegie Hall, but in my mind it's the subtitle to the entire adventure. As time goes on, you've got to have a sense of humor about it," said Costello, a gregarious conversationalist who seems to have a sense of humor about quite a few things.
"Whenever I was approaching any significant birthday from the time I was 18, friends would ring me up and go, 'Are you all right?' as if you were about to fall off a cliff because you were no longer 20, or 40 and so on. So here I am approaching a number that people are fearful about and I go, 'What the hell? I'm alive and doing the thing I wanted to do.'
"I'm playing the Carnegie, the Palace in Louisville, the Ryman. These are places of dreams."
Costello is performing alone save for his guitars, and thinks that people have some knee-jerk misconceptions about solo acoustic tours, expecting them to be quiet, ballad-laden affairs. Think again. Costello can attack a song just fine all by himself.
"A lot of rock 'n' roll records only had a couple of instruments on them, and acoustic guitar was right in there at the beginning, so there's rock 'n' roll in this show," he said. "There's all kinds of music."
"All kinds of music" is a neat summation of Costello's monumentally creative career, which has spanned nearly 40 years and 30 studio albums, many of them classics. He has explored the worlds of rock, country, jazz, film soundtracks, hip-hop, string quartets and orchestral music.
It would take a week's worth of shows to scratch the surface, and that wouldn't even touch on the 45 new songs he's written with Burt Bacharach for a pair of musicals. To call Costello the pre-eminent songwriter of his generation is a bit of an understatement.
He began in 1977 with My Aim Is True, an album of exquisite songwriting delivered with quick-witted vehemence. He averaged more than an album per year over the next decade, and many are considered milestones: This Year's Model, Armed Forces, King of America, Imperial Bedroom, Blood & Chocolate.
Costello was practically machine-gunning songs, and while his pace has slowed to something a bit more human since the late 1980s, he continues to set the standard. Albums such as All This Useless Beauty, Painted From Memory, Momofuku and last year's Wise Up Ghost, a collaboration with The Roots, all sparkle in different ways.
So putting together a solo show that rocks isn't a stretch.
"There are plenty of changes of color and pace and dynamic," Costello said. "And certainly, of course, because of all the different stories I have, I try to find, if not a common thread, a contrast, or something that carries you from one song to the next.
"I've given more thought to my choices of songs than perhaps I ever have before. ... I'm trying to make it alive. I don't want to just come out and recite a familiar script and expect to get a round of applause for that. You've got to try and look into it a little bit more."
The word most often used to describe Costello since his debut has been "intellect," and he's clearly a smart man. The wordplay in his songs can be astounding for both its complexity and content, but what lingers is more visceral.
"I don't really base what I do on intellect, but on emotion," he said. "It's all about emotion, and it always has been. It's other people's ideas that I'm, one, kind of smart, and, two, particularly focused on the structure and history of music. It's actually all about the emotion and story that's being told."
On Costello's last solo tour of the States, in November, he began putting together set-lists by creating a suggested storyline using only a couple of emotionally charged words, such as love and deceit.
"Well, I have a lot of songs about that, and I would try and make one lead to the next," he said. "It wasn't a scripted out thing, but something I had to do on the fly leading from the emotion of one song into the next, sometimes reacting to the way the audience fed back, sometimes to the architecture of the theater, because a lot of these beautiful old theaters have corners and shadows and their own stories, like the one you have in Louisville.
"I really enjoyed those shows, and it felt like it was getting progressively more intense, so we'll start from there and go up."