On the strength of the oddly unconvincing Brutal Youth album and an embarrassingly feeble performance at the Albert Hall back in July — I was hailing a cab inside 30 minutes — I'd come tonight prepared to inter Costello and his reconstituted Attractions in the elderly pub rockers' graveyard. The review in my head was an obituary for one of the most brilliant careers in the rock pantheon.
However. One of Costello's most treasurable traits has always been that he's roughly as predictable as a cornered mongoose. The first words we get from him tonight are "I want you," introducing a seething version of the song of the same name which induces a feeling much like having your heart removed from your chest with a spoon, and ends with an apoplectic assault on his fretboard. This is much more like it. "No Action" follows, rolling back the years of maverick eclecticism to reveal the bespectacled puff adder who recorded the still-stunning This Year's Model.
It's this album that anchors tonight's show. Most of the songs turn up somewhere, and Messrs Thomas, Thomas and Nieve more than live up to the peerless, bare-knuckled savagery of the recordings. Indeed, they frequently transcend it — Nieve romps around "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" like an amphetamine imp and the rhythm section on "Lipstick Vogue," "Pump It Up" and "You Belong To Me" are as coolly violent as, say, an advancing armour division or Hristo Stoichkov.
For the rest, the selections from Brutal Youth are altogether more palatable, mustering the clenched-throat claustrophobia missing from a distinctly passionless album: "Rocking Horse Road" and "My Science Fiction Twin" may take extra deep bows. They reclaim a few they've given away ("Girls Talk," which still has the greatest opening line to any song ever; versions of "Basement Kiss" and "Puppet Girl" from Wendy James' solo record). They rediscover the overwrought joys of "Beyond Belief" and "Human Hands." Basically, they play two hours from an extraordinary' songbook as if they've got rifles trained on them from the wings, and it's f***ing marvellous.
Possibly I have been suckered by an easy exercise in nostalgia. And there's no denying that Brutal Youth, aside from being his most underwhelming album since Goodbye Cruel World, was a peculiarly pedestrian, crowd-pleasing idea with which to follow the dark, difficult delights of the two beard-era albums and the audacious, gorgeous Juliet Letters. So perhaps this tour is just a chance for Costello to find his bearings, do what he knows he can do until he works out what to do next.
But whatever the background, on this kind of form, there are few things I am currently happier about than the fact he's doing three more shows here this month. See you down the front.