For a while back there, it looked like the old crown was slipping drastically askew. Elvis had reached a pretty sublime kind of peak with Get Happy!!, nearly topped even that triumph with Trust and provided a thoroughly diverting entertainment with Almost Blue; but virtually everything since has been a roll down the slope. Imperial Bedroom was full of glossy formalities but few songs that actually sucked you inside out in the grand manner. "Head To Toe" was emptily gruff; "Party Party" was simply wretched, especially set against Elvis' lyric for "Shipbuilding," which was among the most poignant and incisive pieces he'd ever written.
In this context, "Pills And Soap" was a reassuring return to form; its angry, compassionate intensity restoring to his work a vigour that had recently been worryingly absent, the cute marketing strategy that accompanied its release recalling the guerilla tactics of early Stiff campaigns.
No little wonder, then, that his return to Dingwalls was the hottest ticket in town last week. At £12.50 those tickets were hardly a cut-price snip, but what the hell? Six years ago, Costello and the Attractions made their official debut here and played the kind of set that engraved itself indelibly upon the imagination. And, after the extravagances of the Albert Hall shows, and the inevitable graduation to concert halls that followed a brief apprenticeship in the clubs and bars, the opportunity of checking out the man and his band in the sort of atmosphere and environment that had originally nurtured their music was obviously irresistible; a potential thrill that surely couldn't be overlooked.
The evening rather clambered off the deck with a version of "Let Them All Talk" from the forthcoming Punch The Clock set. With the TKO Horns pushing and shoving against the Attractions' characteristically pugnacious bounce, the effect was scrappy, confused, ill-defined. A brusque, punchy "Possession" and a sensationally desolate "Secondary Modern" put the set back on the rails, set up the avalanche of horns and percussion (Pete Thomas giving it maximum stick behind the kit) that threatened to lift "The Greatest Thing" (another cut from the new LP) into surreal orbit.
Crucially enhanced by stabbing brass flourishes and a vocal that was almost awesome in its pained intensity, "Town Cryer" was a searing preface to the decisive emotional dance music of "Everyday I Write The Book," the version of which confirmed that these new songs avoided the glib persuasions of IB and marked something of a return to the robust clout of Get Happy!!: Lordy, I'm already looking forward to the recorded versions of these tunes with an almost rabid enthusiasm, even though "The World And His Wife" seemed here a tad too jauntily offhand and "TKO (Boxing Day)" reminded me of the Q-Tips (aaaarghhhhh!).
A few tentative moments on songs being given their first public airing was only to be expected of course, and the sheerly breathtaking magnificence of nearly everything else in sight and the manner with which this band negotiated more moods and levels of enquiry than most of the competition know exist was more than adequate compensation. Costello has an ability to pluck songs from every stage of his career and invest them with a contemporary vividness that hauls them out of history's back catalogue into the morning's headlines. With the leader plunging himself into everything on the list with a venomous intent and ball-bursting enthusiasm, there was barely time to collect one's thoughts as genuine classic followed brutally on the heels of genuine classic at a pace that would exhaust every available space if I listed them here.
But just catch this for a brilliantly sequenced programme of songs whose thematic links, violently bitter observations on the state of this collapsing nation and sheer compassion married to a singularly definitive musical zest makes everyone else sound like total slops: "Clowntime Is Over" slipping malevolently into "Big Sister's Clothes" and that into a version of the Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" into a reading of "Shipbuilding" that even eclipsed Wyatt's tortured original, turning his rather tearful, melancholic lament into fierce poetry, and then into the scintillating bounce, bite and shellburst attack of "Oliver's Army." By the end of this run, I was damned ready to hit the streets, to put a torch to the town and burn down every building. The last time I heard anything so violently rebellious John Cale had just finished playing "Wilson Joliet" at the Lyceum. This was the vintage snap of someone with a firm grip on his talent and an even firmer grip on the imagination of his audience.
When Costello is in this kind of form the opposition just doesn't exist.