For Elvis Costello, the elixir of youth isn't a potion. It's a guitar sound: the tremolo setting on an overdriven amplifier. He used it in the late 1970's for songs like "Watching the Detectives," and he has revived both that sound and the attack of his first band, the Attractions, on his new album, When I Was Cruel (Island). At the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday night, with three-quarters of the Attractions in his band, the Imposters, Mr. Costello not only reclaimed the ferocity of his youth but also honed it with the cunning of long experience.
In the quarter-century since Mr. Costello emerged alongside punk-rock, he has delved into country, soul, pop and orchestral music, and he has collaborated with musicians as varied as Paul McCartney, George Jones, Burt Bacharach and the Mingus Big Band. Vehement songs with garage-rock roots have become just one of Mr. Costello's specialties.
But when he played new songs alongside 1978 material from This Year's Model, his first album with the Attractions, he showed no sign of mellowing with age. If he couldn't reach a high note, he shouted it; his guitar clawed out its riffs and snarled through solos.
Mr. Costello didn't pretend to be the songwriter who long ago declared his songs were all about "revenge and guilt." He has more on his mind now than he did when he wrote "Pump It Up" or "Alison": not just the grudges of those on the wrong end of unrequited lust or unchecked power, but the vagaries of history and the meaning of life.
The opening song of both the album and his Bowery set, "45," referred to World War II's end, to 45-r.p.m. singles and to the singer's turning 45 years old. (Mr. Costello is now 47.) In "Dust," he concluded, "I believe we just become a speck of dust." And the younger Mr. Costello, dedicated to rock's 4/4 time, wouldn't have come up with the insistent six-beat riff and quavering, Arab-tinged vocal line of "15 Petals," which built an incendiary momentum in mid-set.
The Imposters — Steve Nieve on keyboard, Pete Thomas on drums and Davey Faragher (the newer member) on bass — could summon the full-tilt, organ-topped sound of the early Attractions. But just as often, they attacked a song like a school of piranhas, biting into it from all directions with constantly changing arrangements: terse bass and drums that were suddenly enveloped in piano chords, then switched to a guitar-driven stomp. There was strategy everywhere but no routine or complacency. What had once been taken for granted, like youth, was now something to fight for.