Whether one wishes to take into account the possible home truths gleaned from "rumour" or not — the tittle-tattle here centring on contentions of marital estrangement and a weighty composing block — it's still quite self-evident that 1984 hasn't been an exactly heart-warming year for Elvis Costello. Costello's personal affairs continue to be conducted with a fastidious regard for privacy yet the artistic overspill — principally available gratis this year's mordant, flint-toned Goodbye Cruel World — pretty much screams of a life tormented by all the blighted trappings of terminal exile from domestic grace.
In concert — once again reunited with The Attractions after his lengthy sojourn thru' the U.S. performing solo — the nature of Costello's current artistic malaise becomes more obvious to comprehend. "Focus" or lack of same is the key word here, I'll wager, although to make this observation one shouldn't underestimate the content and execution of a set that, were it the performance of almost any other contender, would be viewed as a proverbial tour-de-force. Costello and The Attractions — minus Afrodiziak and the T.K.O. Horns plus Gary Barnacle's puissant woodwinds — barnstormed through innumerable greatest hits, gold moments and well-heeled trump cards from the past seven years.
In the first 15 minutes alone, the collective trounced thru' a seething "Sour Milk-Cow Blues," a buoyant "Stand Up ... Falling Down," then up at the jugular for a venomous reiteration of "Lipstick Vogue." Even with a sound mix that refused to gel properly and a slight problem with the Costello "vox humana" the momentum was still furious. Unfortunately, the intensity factor lessened its grip as The Attractions' edge veered towards a calculated slickness on the likes of "Watching The Detectives," "You Belong To Me," "Clubland," even the habitually inspired pummelling of "Beyond Belief". This was, if not altogether excusable, at least understandable as most of the audience seemed more than content with their very inclusion. Yet there was an onerous angle to proceedings that made these ho-hum excursions seem all the more pomp-and-circumstance unappealing.
A key interlude — if not the key interlude — of Costello's current stage act was a hectoring performance of "Worthless Thing," Cruel World's plangent declaration of war on the current state of pop. Costello clearly feels both exiled and disgusted by the current infatuation with video, image and T-shirt manifestoes, and in concert the song suddenly comes alive, brimming with caustic twists. The deft touch of transposing "king's ransom" to "Prince's ransom" was one Costello opted to shout forth, whilst an immediate segue into a manic, dislocated rendition of The Byrds' "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star" acts as a brilliant piece of thematic dovetailing. There were other lesser "moments," principally a quite stunning reinterpretation of "Only Flame In Town" in almost waltz-time abetted by Steve Nieve's finest "Theme From A Summer Place" piano trills. Here, as with the quite splendid evocation of "Shipbuilding," The Attractions drop all pretensions towards doling out upper-echelon stadium rock and play with a heart-stoppingly seductive edge that possesses infinitely more "reach" than the more pronounced pulverising amp-ups.
One offshoot of Costello's current malaise has been a tendency to decry the continued relevance of The Attractions as Costello's perfect instrumental foil. Tho' I wouldn't wish both parties to separate permanently, a short solo spot by Costello suddenly provided the... um, well it's back to that word "focus" again, I'm afraid. Even though "End Of The Rainbow" is a Richard Thompson song, it was clearly the one Costello seemed most vehemently in sync with throughout the night. A chilling declaration of universal spite and "black plague bonhommie," Costello poured himself into a fearfully convincing solo rundown of all human ugliness. With a trenchant "Peace In Our Time" following dead on its heels, these two performances again cried out lot further extensions of solo Costello.
Only one new Elvis Costello composition was performed, a paean to "mindless spite" according to its composer entitled "Hope You're Happy Now" In fact, anger and rabid discontent were the two emotions that Costello seemed most adamantly to concur with that night yet both are emotions that he has clearly come to mistrust deeply. As a result he tended to distance himself from the gut feelings of too many older songs, leaving them only marginally populated. How he resolves these various dilemmas is an issue only he can answer with time.
For the present, the shortcomings mooted above should be acknowledged, I feel, but not used to bait Costello in any remotely malicious way. For his part he has continually opted not to behave in an even remotely self-indulgent fashion and as such remains one of the precious few honourable and benevolent forces in contemporary music. His aim may be off but his worth stays consistently true.