The word on Elvis Costello's new album, All This Useless Beauty, is that it's a collection of great songs he wrote for other artists to record.
"I'll let you in on a secret," he told the crowd at the John Anson Ford. "I wrote them for me. This isn't about where these songs have been — it's about where they're going."
Costello has given some great performances in the past. A fair number of lousy ones as well.
But he has his strongest collection of songs in years, and he knows it. What the crowd got Monday wasn't so much a concert as a lesson in life — in growing old, in doing what you know is right.
His latest venture with the Attractions could have been a cash-cow venture based on his older, harder sound; it would sell well in these retro-punk times.
But he long ago abandoned that angry-young-punk persona. All This Useless Beauty is instead an album of grace and beauty, with dense lyrics but soaring vision. He expanded that vision standing on a stage for two hours Monday night, with a set that encompassed his past, present and future to stunning effect.
As Costello deftly wove older tunes with the new, a theme emerged of characters blustering with faux macho fire while searching for faith, for love, for something to believe in while dealing with the effects of time, disappointment and unfulfilled dreams.
For so many artists, going unplugged means giving the drummer brushes instead of sticks and adding a string section.
Costello walked onstage with nothing but a guitar and supreme confidence in his songs and his ability to deliver them. He was sardonic and charming, playful and serious at the same time, one of his most relaxed performances.
The intimate setting allowed him to mull the lyrics as he delivered them; even "Alison," played hundreds of times, found Costello deep inside every word. Attraction pianist Steve Nieve added tasteful accompaniment to some of the songs.
Like Pete Townshend's show at the House of Blues two weeks before, this was a show geared to the hard core; there were virtually no hits. Costello's 20-song set included every track from All This Useless Beauty, several of them greatly improved by the stripped-down setting. The rest was two unreleased songs and six reinvented Costello classics, from the opening "Just About Glad" to the rarely heard "Just a Memory" and "Shot With His Own Gun."
It was a show designed for the most rabid of Costello fans. And, fortunately, that's exactly who showed up. Every song was greeted with hushed awe, turning the show into more of a recital than a concert. Every person was quiet during the songs; one guy made some noise during "Just a Memory" and was immediately shushed by about two-dozen people. People even waited until the breaks between songs to go to the bathroom. Amazing.
Costello long ago gave up on achieving massive sales. The ultimate irony would be if this were the set of catchy songs that finally gives him his commercial due. He long ago earned everything else.