Has Elvis Costello finally become an Establishment "star," or is he still mounting a concerted attack against the oldfart fortress? Taking the stage at Hammersmith Palais about an hour later than expected, Costello and the Attractions went through their 75-minute set in a way which at times owed as much to the simple Sixties beat group ethos — less the Beatles, more Freddie and the Dreamers — as it did to the Radar rationale: make Costello an enigma.
So where does that place this year's model? Well, 1979's Costello is so far pretty much like the original, except that he's stopped writhing on the floor. He used to treat an audience with nervous arrogance, but now he appears to want them to like him (dis-armed forces?). He still can't manage to smile, though – thank God.
At close quarters I could see him actually making advances, nay contact, with the huge crush at the front of the stage; and could observe that intriguing way in which he still uses his left hand to express whatever it is his face quite obviously doesn't/can't.
Armed Forces suggested that he'd grown in confidence enough to enlarge his vocal range and give himself a new sense of dynamics. On stage, in loud checked coat and kipper tie, there was a noticeable amount of the former but little of the latter.
The Attractions are maturing into a quite startlingly good band (although it depended on where you stood in the hall as to whether the PA treated you to a wall of mud or real sound). Rarely for such a small unit, they reject the usual follow-my-leader style in favour of individual interpretation with Steve Naïve's enthusiastic organ debt to Chris Montez, Bruce Thomas's fine dark bass lines, and – best of all – Pete Thomas's tommygun drum sound now giving them a unique signature.
But Costello had decided to play the new material without leaving room for any of the album's breadth or subtlety. Apart from "Green Shirt," all menace was lost in his fevered determination to keep a hectic pace going.
Costello has always been someone to observe, and his own involvement is not of the sweat-and-strain variety (indeed, he remained throughout as dry as a Sure ad). The trouble is that if, as his new album suggests, he's aiming for a new status, he has to somehow follow that through whilst holding on to his anti-Establishment stance, and produce a set which has more depth, more light and shade.
Although he has all the outward trappings of success — a number one album in the first week plus the usual media blitz — he obviously wants to stay slightly off-centre.
Well, it can be done. Witness Bruce Springsteen, who has never sacrificed the in-built tensions of his recorded work to other notions on stage.
But, at the moment, Costello has a leg in both camps, and it shows. It's clear that despite the statutory three encores (with the statutory old friends M. Belmont and the ubiquitous D. Edmunds) the audience on Tuesday night expected much more than they got. Jake Riviera has some thinking to do.
Some things do, however, remain constant. After nearly two years performing the song, Costello still managed a vastly un-improved rendition of "Watching The Detectives."