Every Elvis Costello fan has an opinion on when the bard of British pop went astray. Some cite 1986's King of America, a roots-rock move. Others cite Blood and Chocolate, his erratic reunion with the Attractions, issued later the same year.
About the only consensus is that there's been a perceptible dip in the quality of Costello's songwriting, that his latter-day recordings — 1991's over-arranged Mighty Like a Rose and last year's ponderous song cycle The Juliet Letters — are not as compelling as his first three albums.
So Costello and the Attractions had much to do Thursday night at Mann Music Center: to convince diehards they could muscle through the early material, reclaim some of the derided songs of the post-Attractions era, and use tunes
from the current Brutal Youth to prove Costello hasn't lost his gift for acidic commentary disguised as effortless pop.
Though the set was weighted toward vintage material, it argued successfully that Costello has written great songs all along. The Attractions dug into "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," a ballad that on 1989's Spike featured the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and gave it an overhaul: Stripped of its stylized elements, it became a frank, penetrating, wholly new contemplation.
The Brutal Youth stuff underwent similar transformation. Though recorded with the Attractions — keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas — the recording sometimes feels mannered and overly restrained, as though Costello were too keen on perfection. In performance, the mysterious "Sulky Girl" and wistful soul ballad "Rocking Horse Road" acquired a sense of drama, while "Clown Strike," a swinging shuffle, benefited from an instrumental interlude during which Nieve and Costello batted fragments of "My Favorite Things" back and forth.
These and other new compositions were sprinkled throughout a set filled with the familiar, and only occasionally — on "13 Steps Lead Down" (which desperately needed the Beach Boys-style backing vocals) and "Still Too Soon to Know" — seemed labored. Costello began the first of three encores with a blistering "(I Don't Wanna Go to) Chelsea," and when he returned for a second round, he delivered Brutal Youth's "Just About Glad" as a venomous shout that could have come from his 1977 debut. It was followed by an equally enraged version of "Mystery Dance" that left no doubt about this surprisingly well-rehearsed band's continued vitality.
Canada's Crash Test Dummies opened the show, and it was difficult to figure which was more annoying: lead singer Brad Roberts' geeky attempts at irony in his between-song patter, or the pallid songs themselves, excessively orchestrated yet rendered with an eerie lifelessness.