When Elvis Costello led his usual four-piece band, the Attractions, Friday at Forest Hills, he was not making things easy on himself. Mr. Costello treats pop as a set of verbal and musical cliches that he cannot leave untwisted. His lyrics make revelatory puns on banalities, and as his arrangements have branched away from rock, they have become ever more ironic.
Just to make things more difficult, Mr. Costello writes himself mouthfuls of brilliant lyrics, then tries to find space for vocal improvisation onstage. Somehow, he does.
In the studio, Mr. Costello can flesh out his arrangements genre by genre, but in concert he has fewer choices. The band approximated punk, Memphis funk, Bob Dylan-style folk-rock, organ blues, Beatlesque ballads and even a tango in a 1½-hour set.
Yet the Attractions's live arrangements are necessarily less subtle than those on records. They pointed up Mr. Costello's tendency to write tunes based on descending scales, one skeleton in many guises. And his voice conveys mostly gradations of contained anger, although he does his best to vary it.
Limits and all, Mr. Costello's songs remain powerful. He is so prolific that his concert sets can only skim his repertory, and Friday's showed there has been been a clear shift in his work from songs about attitudes to songs that tell stories — a shift away from solipsism. Although he was performing at an arena, Mr. Costello did not broaden his musical or physical gestures; in the few songs he sang without his guitar, he motioned with his arms while the rest of his body stayed still.
Mr. Costello juxtaposed his own songs with soul oldies such as the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers," setting his fascinating ambiguities in the context of simpler pop. He will perform tomorrow at Pier 84.