There were only a few constants in Elvis Costello's three concerts for the Lincoln Center Festival last week. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights at Avery Fisher Hall, he wore black suits and played guitar; an unobtrusive music stand held his complex lyrics. Steve Nieve, who has been in Mr. Costello's bands since 1977, played keyboards at all three shows. Beyond that, everything was in flux: styles and structures, meanings and moods.
Mr. Costello is ceaselessly curious about music. He is inquisitive enough not just to listen widely, but to learn the makings of every idiom that moves him, from lieder to New Orleans rhythm and blues. In the three nights at Lincoln Center he was a crooner, a howler, a swinger, a brooder, an orchestral composer and a guitar twanger. Mr. Costello recognizes pop genres and what can be expressed by their particularities, but he refuses to be slotted into them. "This is my fondest wish," he sang near the end of Saturday's concert, "to go where I cannot be captured."
He delved into obscure corners of his catalog, tacitly demonstrating that some of his overlooked songs deserve to be heard. The concerts anticipated Mr. Costello's 50th birthday, on Aug. 25, and the lyrics were full of adult concerns: disillusionment, regrets, the shape of history, the persistence of folly. But there was more pleasure than bitterness in the music, if only the pleasures of clarity and distillation: of finding the turns of phrase, melody and dynamics that made some bleak insight linger. Mr. Costello, who married the singer Diana Krall last year, is still a master of songs about romantic entropy and breakups as parting shots, and he had plenty of them during the three concerts.
Mr. Costello's music has long veered between American and European polarities: primal, stomping riffs versus elaborate harmonies and florid ornament. It's a tension that was built into his bands, the Attractions and now the Imposters, with Mr. Nieve's quasi-Romantic decorations surrounding Mr. Costello's cutting guitar. For the three concerts he chose ensembles that can do some shape-shifting themselves.
On Tuesday he was backed by the Metropole Orkest, a Dutch group, conducted by Jim McNeely, that augments a big band with a string section. It was equally at home with a hard-swinging Charles Mingus tune and with slow-motion ballads; for a few rockers the orchestra simply worked as a hefty horn section. It was the most varied concert of the three; in one stretch Mr. Costello followed a stately tribute to Henry Purcell, "Put Away Forbidden Playthings," with a bluesy rocker, "Dust," and then a shimmering ballad, "My Flame Burns Blue," based on Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count." With the Metropole Orkest, he came close to becoming a more ruthless Frank Sinatra.
On Saturday the Brooklyn Philharmonic, conducted by Brad Lubman, played Mr. Costello's hourlong ballet score, Il Sogno (The Dream, written for a dance adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream) and then provided an orchestral penumbra for a core trio of Mr. Costello, Mr. Nieve and Greg Cohen on bass. Il Sogno is a rhapsodic work, following the plot's juxtapositions of characters by switching among courtly pomp, folkish lilt, sweeping romantic lines and jazzy swing, along with eerie sustained interludes. As tuneful themes recurred and intertwined, it was easy to imagine Il Sogno as the latter-day descendant of ballet scores: a film soundtrack.
While Mr. Costello has now proved his skill at writing songs with labyrinthine turns and chromatic kinks and he has become a convincing ballad singer, it's still in his rock songs that the cerebral and the visceral connect best. Thursday's concert unleashed the Imposters, his rock band, with two members of his punk-vintage band the Attractions (Mr. Nieve and Pete Thomas on drums) plus Davey Faragher on bass.
Mr. Costello and the Imposters played most of their next album, The Delivery Man (due in September), which is steeped in Southern Americana from Memphis soul to country ballads, and which sketches characters with terse empathy. They also went barreling through older songs from "I Hope You're Happy Now" to "Pump It Up," and let Mr. Costello roar and twang through a bluesy, extended version of "Love That Burns." He may chafe at the limitations of rock, but it's still his best outlet.
Mr. Costello can't do everything equally well. Some of his more complex songs are too attenuated; sometimes he accentuates details until they obscure the whole. But he's no longer overreaching by much, and his ambition trumps professional complacency anytime.