Elvis Costello hasn't been an angry young man for many a year, but the one-man English pop-music encyclopedia has rarely seemed quite as jolly an entertainer as he did at the Mann Music Center on Saturday.
Not that Costello, 41, has lost his taste for bitterness. "There are still some pretty insults left," he sang snidely on "Little Atoms," from All This Useless Beauty (Warner Bros.), his best album in a decade. "And such sport in threatening."
At a Costello show, the sport is in guessing which songs he'll reinterpret and in hoping he'll strike the appropriate balance between emotional directness and fussy pop craftsmanship. With the able aid of bassist Bruce Thomas, drummer Pete Thomas, and keyboard whiz Steve Nieve — The Attractions — he got it just right.
Costello took a bemused attitude toward impotent male antics on songs both new ("Poor Fractured Atlas," "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?") and old ("You'll Never Be a Man," one of a half-dozen performed on acoustic guitar with only Nieve's accompaniment). Degenerating, obsessive love was pored over on the brilliant "The Other End of the Telescope" and the anthemic punched-up soul-stirrer "Riot Act."
Soaking through his black shirt and avoiding oversinging, Costello was in good voice and relaxed through the two-hour set. As on Beauty, he put his big brain to use, without descending into indulgence. The brittle film-noir mood piece "Distorted Angel" eased cleverly into a slowed "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," which quoted from the Isley Brothers' "Who's That Lady?" A reworked "Pump It Up," with the virtuosic Nieve on accordion, transformed itself into the Beatles' "Slow Down."
Over the years, Costello has learned a thing or two about showmanship. The chorus of "All This Useless Beauty" was sung in Italian, but there were also faithful versions of favorites such as "Less Than Zero," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" and a particularly tender "Alison." He's figured out how to give the people what they want, without sacrificing his own aesthetic needs.