The night after it shook to the thud and blubber of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, the Albert Hall played host to another mind-boggling confrontation as Elvis Costello, armed only with three Attractions and a pedal steel guitarist, took on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for what proved to be a disappointingly tame tangle. Elvis's show, rather like wrestling, was spectacular but unconvincing: an entertainment that promised mayhem but caused only minor damage.
The first set — Elvis and The Attractions — began in broody fashion and my heart sank when El chickened out of singing the falsetto bit in "Secondary Modern." Slowly, though, he got a grip — via the sinister swing of "Green Shirt" and "Watch Your Step" — and then got gripping with a quietly intense climax of "Clowntime Is Over" and "Big Sister's Clothes." In between, sultry tussled with desultory; a wedge of tracks from his almost-blew-it C&W LP — John McFee guesting on pedal steel — dividing four tense, new soulful ballads which leant heavily on the "low-key but compelling" ambience that seems to be El's new stalking ground.
If the main Attraction so far had been Steve Nieve, finepointing each song with so many virtuoso frills they were in danger of becoming a too-pat boon, the main attraction was Elvis's voice, deeper than before, full of hard-core emotion and soft-spoken bile. In black bowtie and matching glasses, he looked like a shady crooner, sharply dressed but better suited to clubland than a plus Albert Hall. At times he sang brilliantly: the ghost of Billie Holiday flitted through the long-held hushes as Elvis wrung intensity out of silence, replacing the awesome rock 'n' roll force of the old Attractions with a subtler dynamic that swapped the iron glove for a velvet fist.
Then came the big moment. The RPO appeared after the break, some 70 strong and beautifully tuxedoed. Elvis and Steve Nieve returned for "Shot With His Own Gun," its starkness compromised by a polite orchestral backing that signalled what was to follow. The other Attractions trooped back for a disarming "Accidents Will Happen," which bounced off at such a hit-and-run tempo it almost did dis-arm the manically sawing string section, and had the audience in stitches as they relished the visual incongruity of a large, po-faced orchestra playing frantic rock 'n' roll.
As the novelty faded, disappointment seeped in. The orchestra were not being used for a radical rethink of Elvis's songs but as a discreet, high-culture veneer on already potent material. Instead of a mystery dance, we got bad lovers face to face; the RPO as a toy that could and, on "Watching The Detectives," did get cute, breaking the back of the song with two superfluous workouts. But, this being Elvis, just occasionally he would blow you away: on a delicate "New Lace Sleeves," the new "Town Crier," and, best of all, a magnificent "Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," transformed into a torrid, deep-soul melodrama, Elvis so involved he sang it all arched up on tiptoe, right hand furiously jabbing the air. It was the one song extensively reshaped to exploit the power of the orchestra. In contrast, the stops-out finale of "Peace, Love And Understanding" came across as mere bombast, its message trapped beneath the trappings of rosy opulence and tackily tacked-on haute couture crescendos. Elvis declined to encore, claiming the RPO didn't know any more songs, and suddenly the evening had fizzled out in a tiny flurry of boos.
Filing out into a freezing Knightsbridge, the nagging question — why had he done it? — remained unresolved. Had we just seen a confidence trickster or a confidence booster? Did he want one night of glory, or just to be like the big boys? Taking account of Almost Blue, a similarly curious sidestep, I've a sneaky feeling Elvis is scrabbling around for this year's market, putting his mouth where the money is — hardly surprising after the criminally low sales for pop masterpieces like "New Amsterdam," "Clubland" or the brilliant Trust LP. Why else would El, rock's sharpest songwriter, waste his talent on a bunch of banal C&W ballads? Why else borrow the RPO's upmarket respectability to re-dress his back catalogue?
The King's new clothes or just the King horsing around? Whatever, in beefing up his songs with the spurious "class" of massed penguin suits and catgut, Elvis failed to bring home the bacon. He'd better watch his step.