On his first few albums Elvis Costello came on like the original angry young man. Like some high school misfit still nursing his resentment over a thousand long-ago slights, he filled his songs with venomous denunciations of his imagined enemies.
It made for visceral and compelling music, especially on This Year's Model, his relentless second album, and the first to feature the stripped-down instrumental support of the Attractions. When he took that band on the road, his live shows only reinforced the image of a kid with a grudge against the world and a ferocious determination to get even.
That wasn't so long ago, but Costello's music has evolved considerably since then. Because of his furious productivity — eight albums in five years — he's managed to cover quite a bit of ground in a relatively short time, from the 60s-style soul of Get Happy!! to the country melancholy of Almost Blue.
The new album, Imperial Bedroom (Columbia FC 38157), contains virtually nothing pounding or raucous (save for the few seconds of screeching that open and close the otherwise tuneful "Man out of Time"), and certainly nothing venomous. Instead it's marked by lyrical ambiguity and musical complexity.
It's also the first Costello album since Armed Forces with a production style to match its compositional ambitions. From the studio-intimate whispering that opens "Beyond Belief" to the string and horn arrangements (by keyboardist Steve Nieve) that adorn several cuts to the careful links between tracks, it leaves you constantly aware of the hand of the producer.
That producer is Geoff Emerick, who served for years as engineer to Beatle producer George Martin. Which may explain the album's Beatlesque touches — the "Penny Lane" trumpets on "...And in Every Home," the "Getting Better" guitars on "The Loved Ones," the "P.S. I love you" tag on "Pidgin English." Along with "Man out of Time," these are Costello's best new songs, with strong melodies and inventive, unconventional structures.
Elsewhere he tries on the conventions of genres other than his own, much as he did on his earlier forays into country and soul. "Almost Blue" is styled like a classic torch song. Over Nieve's cocktail piano Costello croons, Sinatra-like: "Almost blue / Almost doing things we used to do / There's a girl here and she's almost you."
"The Long Honeymoon," a bossa nova in which a wife gradually apprehends her husband's infidelity, is similarly derivative, and neither is wholly successful. For balladry I prefer "Boy with a Problem," with lyrics by Squeeze's Chris Difford, or "Town Cryer," the orchestrated closer.
Lyrically, Costello is no longer as single-minded as he once was, and I hesitate to interpret him. It's hard enough just to make out the words (and the enclosed lyric sheet, his first, is little help, since it's printed in unreadable run-together type).
Even the songwriting fertility that allows him to include 16 songs on an album (with more in the can, apparently) makes it difficult to get a fix on what he's saying. But if listening to him involves hard work, the work has great rewards.
In concert, though he includes a handful of ballads, Costello is still largely the pounding rocker of old. At Convention Hall in Asbury Park this week he charged through 36 songs in just under two hours.
The Attractions' accompaniment was perhaps overly stark — no harmonies, no lead guitar, hardly anything but beat — though that may have been the fault of the hall's atrocious acoustics. Fortunately, Costello's voice was sufficiently audible, and he was clearly up for the occasion, wailing the ballads (while the audience hushed sufficiently for him to be heard) and pushing the rockers harder than on record.
Considering that he now has well over 100 songs to choose from, he sang nearly everything the crowd could have wanted, from the first album's "Alison," "Watching the Detectives" and "(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes" to a healthy selection from the new record and even a couple of brand new songs (including Imperial Bedroom itself, which isn't on the album but can be found on the B side of the 12-inch English edition of "Man out of Time").
He also acknowledged his debt to black music with Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Two Steps from the Blues," a Smokey Robinson song that seemed to be called "Sweet Baby," and a verse of the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" used to introduce his own "King Horse" (not to mention "Temptation," his rewrite of Booker T and the MGs' "Time Is Tight"). Though he omitted most of his country material, he did offer the hardest-rocking cut from Almost Blue, Hank Williams's "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?"
He didn't say much between songs, but his opening and closing patter was quite friendly, without the hostility of past tours. He began by apologizing for the equipment problems that had delayed his entrance ("You've got funny electricity in New Jersey," he joked). Toward the end he introduced the band and even asked for requests, responding to one for "Radio, Radio."
During his three encores he repeatedly raised a finger to ask the audience wordlessly whether they wanted one more. Of course they did, and they grew more and more ecstatic as he kept repeating the offer.
The setting wasn't really ideal for the more complex material from the new album. But rousers like "The Beat," "Pump It Up," "Mystery Dance" and Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" were simply overwhelming, and by the time he finished the last number of the night, Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'," he'd left everyone exhausted and satisfied.