In last year's "Man Out of Time," Elvis Costello plaintively posed the question, "Will you still love / the man out of time?" Read literally, the line is just another nice bit of phrasing, but taken figuratively the last part sums up Costello's place in contemporary pop.
There's an all-encompassing quality to Costello's extraordinary songwriting ability that truly does put him "out of time." On his albums he's ranged across decades of styles and tastes, and done so with apparent ease.
Costello may or may not be the best songwriter working today, but he's certainly one of rock's least understood figures. Hard rock fans consider the irritable, bespectacled Elvis as the ultimate example of everything that's creepy about new wave.
Those who liked his "angry young man" stance of the first three albums now consider him something of a wimp and even a number of critics who had been his staunchest defenders (this one included) have been grumbling that his new material lacks focus and caters to bland, commercial interests.
To his credit, Costello continues on, outwardly indifferent as always to every kind of public opinion or pressure. Sunday night he did introduce the new single "Every Day I Write the Book" by noting, with what seemed to be a twinkle in his eye, that the tune was "45 with a bullet in Billboard magazine this week."
But that briefest acknowledgement of the competitive, business end of the music game (which seems to consume many other pop performers) is about as crass and commercial as Elvis gets. Musically, he remains pop music's answer to Greta Garbo — talented, but inaccessible unless you take him on his own terms.
This time around, Costello's terms involved him confronting his audience with funked-up rearrangements of much of his songbook. The Attractions were filled out by a four-piece horn section and two back-up singers who performed on about half the 29 songs played. It was an obvious tie-in, since his new Punch the Clock is brass-heavy to begin with, but it was still the kind of catch-'em-off-guard move Costello excels in.
Familiar, hard-edged grinders like "Watching the Detectives" and "Pump It Up" were completely transformed — slowed down and filled out with horn riffs, "Detectives" suddenly seemed like a boozy, big-band smoker from the '40s, while the tightly played "Pump it Up" sounded like something you'd expect from Earth, Wind and Fire.
The way these songs were changed to meet Costello's whim of the moment violates the unspoken rules of how contemporary rock is played. On-stage, artists are expected to play their most popular numbers exactly like they sound on the record so that fans can just sit back and listen.
Throughout his career, however, Costello has dared his listeners to follow him through a musical maze. This has tended to alienate casual listeners and leave him open to the charge that his music is too self-centered and eclectic. It's true in only one sense — Costello is a very tricky artist to follow: he's not a casual pastime, but an acquired taste.
On the other hand, the rewards are there for those who are willing to suspend their own rigid definitions that pop should be accessible above all else. Sunday night, Costello played so many songs that are simply without parallel.
"Man Out of Time," "New Lace Sleeves," "Beyond Belief," "Alison" and "Clowntime Is Over" — who else consistently writes lyrically complex and musically elaborate pieces like these that also catch your ear?
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Including the covers of Gene Pitney's "The Greatest Thing," the Originals' "The Bells" and The O'Jays' "Backstabbers" there wasn't a dud song in the set.
There were, however, some dud moments here and there. The consequence of Costello's constantly ambitious approach to live performance is that occasionally the arrangements stray into obscurity.
Parts of "Shipbuilding" and "Kid About It" seemed to be dragged down by over-instrumentation, and Costello himself tended to tag on slightly overwrought vocal endings that took the edge off of some numbers.
Still, all things considered, it was a remarkably fluid, attractive performance. Not an earthshaking one, perhaps, but just another night that makes one aware of the range and depth of his abilities.
Opening was the young Scottish quartet, Aztec Camera. Led by 19-year-old lead singer Roddy Frame, whose singer-songwriter style has generated a certain critical buzz (the band's been touted as sort of the It's a Beautiful Day of the '80s, with Frame cast as a second generation Loudon Wainwright III), Aztec Quartet churned out 40 minutes that were exactly what you'd expect of a talented young act — plenty of promise, but off and on delivery.
Whatever lyrical nuances Frame's songs possess were largely obscured by his thick accent and the slightly muddy sound. Only the strongest tunes, "Oblivious," "We Could Send Letters" and the acoustic "Down the Dip," hit home.
On the other hand, these best numbers have the ring of something special; they make you think that next time around Aztec Camera could be a force to contend with.