Halfway through "Watching The Detectives," there is a small fight. When it has been amicably concluded, the thin man in the Buddy Holly specs, striped button-down shirt and shabby grey suit grins and says, "I thought it was 1978 for a second!" Since Elvis Costello And The Attractions have already treated us to "Accidents Will Happen," "The Beat" and the aforementioned "Detectives," and since the stage is not littered with Afrodiziak, T Bone Burnett or brass sections, and since Bruce Thomas is dressed with the total terror-inspiring style-blindness that marked the late '70s so clearly for many of us, Elvis Costello's error is a natural one. The sound and look of this show is a deliberate return to the post-punk Merseybeat of Twisted Four-Eyed Bastard-era Costello.
But stay! Who is this man, walking about the stage and playing very odd guitar solos with the impish twinkle of the late Eric Morecambe? It is Elvis Costello, and now he is waving his hands about. He wants the audience to copy him, and soon many young people are waving their hands about. "It's called The Uncomplicated," he says in the voice of proud father to an idiot child. Later we will be made to sing along: "BUD DUMM DUM BUD BUD DUM" was the gist of the lyric, I believe.
Large parts of this show are, not to put to fine a point upon things, Big Jollies. I kept laughing, for example, which is rare at shows of the singer/songwriter variety. The keynote here is relaxation. Not the sitting-about-with-a-cup-of-tea sort, but mental relaxation, a loosening of the reins. This is, after all, the man who in 1979 single-handedly duffed up every photographer in the country for not wearing glasses; you can safely say that Elvis Costello has been more tense in the past. So the relaxation is not total. The Jags have not reformed.
And halfway through the Big Jollies, we have "I Want You," Costello's variantette of Lennon's edgy tribute to Yoko Ono and a similar unravelling of lust and love. Costello builds up the song with the old sneer, climaxes in his patented screams of despair, and ends, incredibly, in the tiniest voice: "I want you. Want you. Want you." Hands folded, alone on the stage, asking. Elvis Costello as the humble suitor — gone are the old revenge songs, gone the nit-pickingly detailed songs of ordinary life in which Costello seemed to be writing about romance because that's what he gets paid for, and all that's left is this tiny voice in the dark.
Alors, not all as such. There's a lovely "Battered Old Bird," with an intro of "This is about a house I used to live in"; there's some wild R'n'B and all your favourite hits wherein Costello and the Attractions assume their Buddy Holly and Stooges Very Loud personas. And finally, as a definitive encore, there was the remarkably odd "Poor Napoleon." Performed in virtual pitch-darkness with the invisible figure of Cait O'Riordan on a very loud guitar and a very quiet speaking voice. The song offered up Costello's favourite screwed-up misogynist lyric — "I bet she isn't all that's advertised / I bet that isn't all she fakes" — and appears to beat it up. Towards the end, huge strobe lights come on and blind us while the song gets louder and more relentless and Costello begins to shout the refrain from "Instant Karma" — "What in the world are you thinking of? / Laughing in the face of love". A question surely addressed to himself and all his past variants, made into a kind of Exploding Plastic Inevitable Significant EST Therapy course by strobes and noise and Cait's spoken refrain. The effect on us, incidentally, is akin to being machine-gunned at a party; but what a way to go. The loud return of Elvis Costello is a welcome thing. The quiet return of Elvis Costello is even more welcome.