Elvis Costello spent most of the last decade collaborating with the likes of the Brodsky Quartet, opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter and ballad king Burt Bacharach. But at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday night — before a crowd heavy with music-business types — the poet laureate of New Wave proved he hasn't forgotten how to deliver a bristling set of smartly crafted rock songs.
Costello devoted nearly half of his 100-minute show to his latest CD, When I Was Cruel, to be released Tuesday. Playing with a band that included original Attractions Steve Nieve (keyboards) and Pete Thomas (drums), Costello imbued the new material with the bracing spirit of his earliest hits.
Wearing a black suit and his trademark black-framed glasses, Costello opened with "45," a reverie on the postwar generation and the joy of listening to old vinyl singles. Then he offered what amounted to a "compare and contrast" seminar on his recent and classic work.
"Waiting for the End of the World" and "Watching the Detectives," from Costello's 1977 debut, preceded the new "Spooky Girlfriend."
That was followed by 1978's "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and the recent "15 Petals" and "When I Was Cruel No. 2."
Inviting such a comparison is a risky gambit, but Costello's reinvigorated pop instincts were up to the challenge. Several new songs are as good as anything he has written. The vituperative rant "Alibi" could hold up against Bob Dylan's lacerating "Ballad of a Thin Man."
Even when the songs weren't so strong, Costello frequently tossed out single lines filled with more wit and brio than most artists' entire catalogues. "Episode of Blonde" is not likely to rank as one of his best, but his description of a starlet as "a cute little ruin that [her agent] pulled out of the rubble" was a typically winning aside.
Costello headed into the end of his show with the organ-heavy rave-ups "You Belong to Me" and "Pump It Up" from 1978. He ended with an exquisitely bitter reading of 1986's "I Want You," during which he managed to hush a room of loudly chattering scenesters.
It was a hard-won victory for an abundantly talented writer whose eclectic vision and furious output have left him adrift in the mainstream pop world. But if for even a moment Costello can get a room of jaded insiders to shut up and listen, perhaps there's a chance that his literate screeds might reach ears outside the dwindling scope of his small but dedicated following. Costello's tour returns to New York on June 18-19 at the Beacon Theatre.