Elvis Costello, who performed at the Mann Music Center last night with his band the Attractions, has led an odd, spiraling career thus far. Emerging in the late 1970s as part of Britain's new wave, Costello quickly made it clear that he wasn't a snarling punk-rocker — he was a snarling but eloquent singer-songwriter who would eventually inspire comparisons to Cole Porter among critics who should have known better.
Costello's performance at the Mann last night showcased many songs from his new album Punch the Clock (Columbia), a record that reveals his strengths and weaknesses in glaring extremes. Costello has always been obsessed with pinpointing the exact moments when a romance ruptures, when love turns sour, when a crucial betrayal is committed.
On Punch the Clock, however, his skills as a master pop craftsman are too self-conscious — as Costello himself might put it, with his typical fondness for puns and repetition, his manner has become mannered. While songs like "Charm School" and the new single "Every Day I Write the Book" bristle with sharp melodies and pungent imagery, tunes such as "The World and His Wife," "Mouth Almighty" and "The Invisible Man" are convoluted with facile wordplay and fussy instrumental arrangements — they are bland and listless judged by the standards Costello used to maintain.
At the Mann Music Center last night, however, Costello pulled off a small miracle: Emphasizing a mediocre album, he gave an exceptionally good performance. As on Punch the Clock, Costello was backed not only by his three-man Attractions but a four-piece horn section as well. The addition of brass instruments added a thick, lustrous sound to Costello's music, and brightened a number of needlessly somber songs.
Dressed in a quiet black suit and flaming red shoes, Costello's stage manner bore no resemblance to the angry young man he used to be — he was cordial and solicitous of the audience last night, and patiently introduced songs with whimsical, charming remarks. This fresh magnanimity extended to his playing as well. On "Shabby Doll," for example, Costello took the first extended guitar solo I've ever seen him attempt, and it added depth and emotion to a song full of trite images.
Costello's show ranged all across his career, from a sparkling version of the new "The Greatest Thing" to "Mystery Dance," a six-year-old song that Costello reinvented with a quavering echo in his voice and bashing instrumentation. The best performances were, appropriately enough, taken from Costello's best album, Get Happy (1980). Both "Secondary Modern" and "New Lace Sleeves" were sung with subtlety and played with understated humor.
In fact, his performance was so good it raises a paradoxical question that summarizes Elvis Costello's position in pop muse now: Why does this man who currently says he emulates Cole Porter's verbal wit and cares little about rock 'n' roll put on such spirited, rocking shows?