Squint the right way when you gaze at Elvis Costello and he looks remarkably like a carbon of Woody Allen. And sure enough, Costello shares Woody's perpetual anxiety syndrome. But squint another way and Costello emerges as a replica of Buddy Holly. And yes, Costello has more in common with Buddy Holly than you can imagine.
Last week, when Costello's U.S. tour stopped at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, this multiple-identity twist went one step further. Costello, his unexpectedly expanding midriff packed in the confines of a dapper three-piece suit, recalled some memories of his namesake, the other Elvis — during his blubbery final years! Invasion of the body snatchers, indeed.
Costello might have put on some pounds, but his music remained as taut and trim as ever. Costello has a new album coming out this week, a 14-song collection called Trust (not a humongous set like his earlier 20-cut salutes, Get Happy!! and Taking Liberties; Costello appears to have dropped his informal competition with The Clash to see who can produce the most music at the cheapest price.) Naturally, Costello drew heavily from Trust at the Tower, but that was expected. It didn't reduce the suspense that always surrounds a Costello concert.
Anticipation runs heavy because you never know what ol' EC will be up to; you never know which way his psyche will be bending. It's all a function of Costello's current exasperations. Costello is rock's most literary dissident, a songwriter able to focus his frustrations, resentment, ennui, and general bitchiness through compelling lyrics that depend heavily on spoonerisms, obscure puns, and understated irony. Costello is a gruff soul, with a froggy voice that virtually drips sarcasm, and the usual "anti-" stances that run through his songs have been interpreted as everything from social consciousness to fascism. Costello, after all, is the guy who once called Ray Charles a blind, ignorant so-and-so, earning a punch in the puss from Bonnie Bramlett for his evaluation.
Costello, at the Tower, was not out to pick a fight with anyone or anything. This is not to say he was particularly subdued. (Nor was the basically clean-cut crowd — a sell-out — the normal punk army, although there were a few fans decorated with plastic army helmets and other regalia.) Costello, from row QQ looking pudgy and about 35 years old, stood onstage in coiled-spring animation, his body seemingly shimmering with pent-up rage while he spat out his messages on such personal vexations as radio exploitation, and his high-voltage back-up band the Attractions (assisted on half the set by Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont) cut musical knife swathes in the air. It was a no-nonsense, stay-on-your-feet-throughout type of performance.
Enough of the old favorites were included: "Accidents Will Happen," "Clowntime Is Over," "Allison," a particularly exhilarating version of "King Horse," "Secondary Modern," "High Fidelity," "Hand in Hand," "Green Shirt," "Radio Radio," all culminating in "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," the EC-Nick Lowe standard that in sharp contrast to Elvis' other bitter harangues holds out hope for us all.
The 21-song set, though, did not belong to the oldies. Not at all. Elvis' legacy from that night was the new material, a trove of jewels off the new album which prove right away that Trust will not be another mixed bag of B sides, faltered singles, and unreleased-in-America British cuts.
Not having heard the new LP (except for some selected cuts on the FM), I found it difficult to pick up all the titles. (Precise enunciation is not Costello's forte.) But suffice to say, there were some dandy rockers, one unfamiliar hug-'em-close dance number, and a whole slew of Costello numbers armed to the teeth (or should I say the fangs?) with venom, acerbity, and various sinister innuendos. Songs to listen for in that category include "Clubland" and "You'll Never Be a Man."
Personally, I think the past tense is erroneous when Costello sings, "I used to be disgusted..." In the long run, though, maybe he is amused by the whole proceedings. Certainly, no one else personifies the most compelling visual, musical and emotional qualities of Woody Allen, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. And no one else could approach it with the intensity of a pit viper. In Elvis Costello's case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.