I just don't know where to begin. Where do you start to plot another point on the graph of Elvis Costello's massive artistic ascendency against his inexorable commercial decline? How to investigate, or in some way try to explain this frustrating phenomenon of the country's foremost songwriter and performer who simply can no longer sell records in any great number?
Of course, Costello still possesses (is chained to?) an horrendously cultish audience which ensures lowly album placings, but, it seems, is not interested in brilliant singles — this audience of '77's middle class angst-ridden soft student "radicals" now, five years on, replete with the trappings of a society's moderate success, are freezing this icon in aspic — ensuring a numbing impotence through commercial indifference — Costello as heir to the introverted frigidity of bedsitterland?
Why, why, why must this man of golden nib and lip be consigned to this ultimate No Future — a guaranteed future of compromise and underachievement where every ecstatic hook or phrase cannot be taken at face value, but undermined by dullard preconceptions and confused by the very wealth of excellence already experienced? What is it about EC that so soundly turns people off?
To say that Elvis Costello was magnificent at Oxford's cosy Appollo Theatre would be, at the very least, mild understatement.
Over two hours of entertainment so hard, so passionate — touching and probing every emotion, from glimpses of despair to pure joy. Costello's body of work is now gargantuan enough to ensure a set devoid of low points, merely contrasting the numerous highs — the fact that he can afford to dispense with so many classics (he didn't play "Shot With His Own Gun," nor "Town Cryer," nor "New Amsterdam") sharply reiterating the riches that were on display.
If the start was shaky, in that he and The Attractions fell prey to their single consistent live fault, rattling away like an express in a rush to dispel initial stage nerves, a sudden, subtle turnabout saw the hesitancy and speedbeat impatience tumble away as "Shabby Doll" clicked into that effortless inventiveness that The Attractions have made their hallmark, and a million others have failed to imitate.
Five years of melodic and rhythmic incest, honed by two more months of solid examination of the Imperial Bedroom collection in America, has produced a group so sensuously intimate with each other's motives, reactions, ploys and needs — plus an awareness of the material that transcends mere chord progressions or climactic emphasis —that the structure of each song is used solely as a point of reference — a framework on which to elucidate, a search commenced every night with the most intrinsic discoveries laid bare to the hardest gaze.
The Thomases, Pete and Bruce, delve, burrow, coerce, are eager to lead but never forget how to follow, how to listen. No qualms about breaking the rules of drum and bass, their role is by no means purely rhythmic — while Costello's guitar (a switch from Gretsch to Epiphone courtesy Mr Bobby Bluebell) is an integral part of the rhythm; Bruce's bass, in lurid disguise, pretends to wander while actually instigating yet more melodic cues and replies.
The whole notion of melody has been torn apart and reassembled with little regard for formal "pop" constraints – Costello himself leading the chemical breakdown by a gnawing necessity to operate around his original tunes, to stress what might have been — often luring us into falsely secure notions of familiarity before suddenly dislocating our propriety with a swingeing assault, an interpretation often at obtuse odds with the original.
Equipped as he is with a voice of a maturity fast matching an already priceless writing ability, Costello's live versions can do away with the conditioning and refining that recording demands — and while he can head in one direction in the studio (as on the orchestrated, multi levelled production of Imperial Bedroom), the stage allows, actively encourages, total contrast in arrangement and delivery — a brevity, a lucidity that in most cases far outstrips the recorded Bedroom versions.
Steve Nieve, responsible for the consistent eccentricity of arrangement on the LP, manages to retain a song's quirky character ("... And In Every Home") while actually stripping the additions to the bone — his restrained dabblings on some new tangled synthi thingy revealing a very English sense of humour at work — an eagerness to tease matching Costello's own lyrical playfulness.
Elvis Costello And The Attractions played 37 numbers, including a gloriously brief snatch of "Backstabbers" seguing into the hit-single-that-never-was "King Horse," a version of "Watching The Detectives" that seemingly started as a crowd pleasing retread but then exploded into Buddy Guy's "Help Me" before returning to a blistering conclusion of the original tune. Every album was plumbed for gems, Costello's usual singleminded disregard for audiences lessened in the creation of a perfectly rounded set. His usual act of foisting large numbers of unknown new songs pruned back to a handful of direct covers and the Clive Langer co-written "Shipbuilding."
The best concert I've seen for ages (make that years!) With such talent on display there must be some way out of the commercial backwater in which Costello now finds himself becalmed. On this showing he deserved nothing less than Number Ones. I don't want Elvis Costello to be hailed as a genius in 10 years time — he's a bloody genius now!