If Elvis Costello had dived any deeper into his catalog for his solo concert on Tuesday, opening a two-night stand at Carnegie Hall, he would have needed scuba gear. It wasn't the kind of solo show by an established rocker that treats a bunch of old favorites as guitar-strumming singalongs for longtime fans. The hall was often silent as Mr. Costello offered something else: a continuing, challenging, intimate engagement with his songs, old and new.
At Carnegie Hall, the ovations that tend to greet familiar opening chords were scarce and muted. Mr. Costello played plenty of songs that were originally tucked within his 21st-century albums, unapologetically stacking them up alongside material from his 1970s and '80s radio heyday. When he got around to his more widely circulated songs, he reworked them ruthlessly: stripping away pop enticements like intros and instrumental hooks, magnifying dynamic ups and downs, illuminating each lyric anew.
At one point Mr. Costello announced: "I'm going to play you a song now that I really hate. I wrote it in 10 minutes, and then it was a hit." It was "Everyday I Write the Book," and it was a world away from the perky 1983 single. Solo, set just to folky fingerpicking, its forlorn yearning was unmistakable. "Shabby Doll," a tale of back-and-forth humiliation, lost its old rock sneer for gnarled chords and hints of jazz syncopation, turning it into something more complex and compassionate.
Although Mr. Costello was playing alone, each song was precisely arranged. He used six guitars — including acoustic and electric, hollow-body and solid-body — and occasionally switched to electric piano. Attuned to the moment rather than to the permanence of recording, he shifted toward extremes: turning the verses of "Man Out of Time" into acoustic meditations and the choruses into desperate plaints, or pushing the peaks of "I Want You" toward all-out distortion and dissonance.
Early on, Mr. Costello promised a night of songs about "love and deceit" and "tragedy and exile." All of them, particularly the first three, are well represented among his logophile lyrics, whether he's straightforwardly depicting a situation, as in "Either Side of the Same Town," or conjuring a character with a skein of images, as in "Church Underground." But he also offered fond, though unsparingly observed, glimpses of his family history in songs about his grandparents — "Veronica," "Last Boat Leaving" and "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" — and a reminiscence about playing guitar with his father.
The encores included two mournful, bitter songs about the toll of war and violence: "Shipbuilding" and "For More Tears," both accompanied by sparse, hymnlike keyboard chords. Mr. Costello also had a sardonic tune with God as its cynical narrator, "Come the Meantimes," from Wise Up Ghost, his 2013 collaboration with the Roots. The solo version traded the funk of the album track for agitated, quick-strummed guitar, and Mr. Costello got the audience shouting along — not to his past, but to his present.
The concert spanned Mr. Costello's career, from the first of his songs he said he heard on the radio — "Poison Moon," recorded as a demo before his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True — to a brand-new one, "The Last Year of My Youth," about breaking free from worries about age. (Mr. Costello turns 60 in August.) He introduced that song this month on Late Show With David Letterman and reintroduced it, with a completely rewritten melody, on Tuesday night. Like the rest of his catalog at Carnegie Hall, it thrived on being a work in progress.