Elvis Costello let his voice precede him Monday night at the Beacon Theater. He emerged in darkness, banging out chords on his guitar. The lights stayed off as he was quietly joined by his frequent collaborator, the pianist Steve Nieve. By the time listeners could see Mr. Costello's face, they were absorbed, drawn in by the music and kept there by the words.
This moment made a discreet point about the career Mr. Costello retraced in this performance. More than almost any other rocker, he has established himself as an artist first and a personality second.
He has done this not only by writing highly literate songs but also by creating a strong public image, first as punk's cleverest lyricist, then as a musical explorer updating pop's canon and finally as a 45-year-old patriarch. Mingling with legends like Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach, Mr. Costello has embodied the intellectual pop star, transcending personality through skill and imagination. This stance has earned him artistic freedom and universal respect while many of his peers have struggled to repeat early glories or avoid obscurity.
At the Beacon Mr. Costello played old stompers like "The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" next to elaborate later experiments like "God's Comic." The set, which also briefly featured Greg Cohen on stand-up bass, made clear that the callow Mr. Costello was crafty and subtle, and the mellow Mr. Costello can still twist and shout.
New songs further illustrated this range: "45" bounced and bubbled, juxtaposing reflections on the postwar era, the nature of pop hits and impending middle age. "Lesson in Cruelty," with music by Mr. Nieve, was a highly polished pop etude fleshing out a poignant domestic struggle.
After that urbane effort, the duo leapt into the sneering "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," which they first recorded as angry young men. Such songs let Mr. Nieve get loud, revisiting the aggressions of his wilder days. Mostly though he stayed in the background. Even his grand piano flourishes never seemed overstated, partly because Mr. Costello's singing was always equally flamboyant.
Always fond of tricky melodies, Mr. Costello has recently become downright divalike, favoring tunes that force him to emulate Tom Jones, if not Luciano Pavarotti. These endeavors have sometimes strained him, but he was in top form at the Beacon, easily scaling the expressive heights of songs like "God Give Me Strength."
That glorious collaboration with Mr. Bacharach could have been the show's climax, but in this abundant evening, no single moment prevailed. In typical Costello fashion, the drama just kept expanding until the inevitable end.