Rejection doesn't bother Elvis Costello. At the Beacon Theater in Manhattan on Wednesday night, the first of five shows continuing tonight, Sunday and Monday, Mr. Costello's set included songs written for other people. What Johnny Cash and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) had shelved, Mr. Costello sang himself, filling the songs with drama and conviction.
For two hours, Mr. Costello sang about power struggles and troubled romances, petty betrayals and humiliations, paranoia and murder: human reality falling far short of ideals. Mr. Costello is no idiot savant rocker; he is smart and self-conscious, toying with genres and carefully constructing metaphors. In his opening song, he described himself as "living with the curse of sophistication." But he is also a one-man torrent of ideas; his lyrics are packed with brilliant one-liners and couplets, his tunes are lucid and memorable. He has inspiration to match his craftsmanship.
After advertising that he would feature new songs, Mr. Costello played a two-hour set with only enough familiar tunes to forestall requests. But he is such a gifted, prolific songwriter that he had plenty of first-rate material to unveil. His songwriting catalogue seems bottomless. Since 1993, Rykodisk has been rereleasing Mr. Costello's older albums as CD's, adding previously unreleased songs, yet he didn't delve into those archives for Wednesday's concert.
Writing for other people, Mr. Costello concentrates on character and story; he clears away the thickets of imagery that sometimes turn his songs into puzzles. But even as he tries the structures of soul or country music, he can't fake it as a straightforward genre writer. The song earmarked for Johnny Cash, about a gunslinger in trouble, had the recurring refrain "complicated shadows," something Mr. Cash seems unlikely to sing. Similarly, the song for Mr. Moore had a bridge that moved into genre-breaking chromatic turns.
That put the songs back in Mr. Costello's hands, and on Wednesday night he was in top form. His husky baritone had depth and nuance, from a whisper to near-operatic projection. Unfortunately, many of his new lyrics were obscured by a sound mix that swathed his voice in reverberation.
Yet the music held up. Mr. Costello's longtime band, the Attractions, played like co-conspirators, batting around ideas and slyly illustrating lyrics. When he sang "invisible shivers running down my spine" in "Watching the Detectives," Bruce Thomas on bass played a skittering run of triplets. Through the set, Mr. Costello traded twangy guitar lines with Steve Nieve's mock-classical keyboard flourishes; Pete Thomas on drums was both solid and wily.
Mr. Costello has been making albums since 1977, and he's no longer the driven, embittered character he embodied during the punk era. Singing "Alison" from his debut album, he now sounded more compassionate than sullen. But he remains a fierce observer of humanity's failings, with songs that illuminate before they bite.