Words come at a mad clip in the songs of Elvis Costello. Tricky phrases, sly asides and scathing observations jam his numbers, making for heavy going when sung at full speed.
How refreshing, then, finally to hear Costello slow his music and strip his arrangements for his first acoustic show in more than a decade, on Wednesday at the Supper Club.
Supported by just an acoustic guitar and the piano player from his Attractions band (Steve Nieve), Costello let the headiness of his words, and the range of his singing, take the reins without distraction.
While so spare an accompaniment could have suggested the intimacy of a folk singer, Costello brought his performance closer to the theatrical world of cabaret. Given Nieve's frilly keyboards, the music was move evocative of Cole Porter than Bob Dylan.
The emphasis not only suited the Broadway area club, it fit well with Costello's grand new album, All This Useless Beauty (which deserves a glowing review for its title alone).
"Beauty" stresses elegant ballads, the most flowing of Costello's career. In tone, it lands closest to his 1985 LP, King of America (which, unsurprisingly, inspired the artist's last acoustic tour).
At the Supper Club, several songs wound up almost a capella. The new "Distorted Angel" downplayed the album's R&B slinkiness and beat in favor of a whispered grace that suggested the most elegiac work of Stephen Sondheim. Costello added equally subtle drama to his own song "Temptation," which lost its rolling Stax riff to become a ruminative ballad.
Despite their slender arrangements, Costello's most stirring songs - like "Oliver's Army" and the new "You Bowed Down" - could still make listeners feel they should salute in honor.
In the former number, Costello added allusions to the Pretenders' "Kid," the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" and Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" to show the elasticity of his pop sensibility.
The singer also offered a clutch of his own well-known numbers - like "Watching the Detectives", "Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes" and "Alison" (which included bits of "Clowntime Is Over"). More often, though, his oldies ran to obscure material like "The Long Honeymoon", "You'll Never Be A Man" "Just About Glad" and "Black Sails in the Sunset."
Costello made sure to perform his new album in its entirety, finding highlights in its pro-suicide number, "I Want To Vanish," the mens' movement satire "Poor Fractured Atlas" and his one-night-stand autopsy, "It's Time." In the latter, he treated a melody line worthy of the Drifters to an operatic crescendo that threatened to raise the roof.
For someone who owns an essentially homely voice, it's amazing what beauty Costello has managed to find in it. Better yet, his broad singing never lapsed into artifice. Instead, Costello's theatrical vocals and elaborate lyrics suggested their own new style of popular song - one sophisticated enough to be savored.