"Well I used to be disgusted. Now I'll try to be amused." — Elvis Costello.
After the past months of deliberate anonymity I suspect he had finally returned to his day-time job. I could picture him sitting in the local council offices behind the stuttering, iron radiators and flaking paint, stamping away at the rates bills. The perpetually forsaken Elvis. But wait, there he is, focused in the dark of the Playhouse stage theatre. I must be mistaken because I thought he smiled.
All I can see is the light reflected off the glasses like armour over the eyes, all I can hear are the ritual lines struggling out from the back of his throat. The strangulated vocals with no other support with a slight piano backing, calling out the opening songs. It's a new one that I lose the title of but is a slow fugue for loves long lost or maybe never even found, Elvis's recurring theme. Three seconds and the audience are convinced and as he breaks into the familiar territory of "Accidents Will Happen" an avalanche of people pour like lemmings to the barriers around the gaping orchestra pit. Little Caesar returns in triumph.
The Edinburgh Festival, the yearly artistic carnival has been stopped from being a collection of expensive classical concerts and elitist boredom by the presence of the Fringe and spin-offs like this concert. A unique and adventurous event, it envelopes the city for three weeks and the rock festival (spread around different venues) has consolidated a place alongside.
In fast succession, Costello and the Attractions fire off with "On The Beat" and "Green Shirt," one of the cleverest songs from an extremely clever man. The punch and speed of delivery is stunning and almost confusing. But age has subtracted nothing from the sparse magic of his earlier songs and it's surprising how little his range of themes has changed. He still spits out memory's targets — from his little black book. For example, the next one "Lipstick Vogue." It is as if the bitterness still lies in his mouth. Some defences never drop.
Mass acceptance has made Elvis more accessible since last I saw him and although troublesome and irate he may still be, you don't hit a man with glasses, especially when he is the mainstay of the established wave. The face is still a conniving chisel and the body tightly-suited like a ventriloquist's dummy. The character is decidedly unattractive. But he spreads his pain amongst us in such a seductive way, with songs delivered with dramatic conviction and chosen with such discretion that people still crowd to hear the confusion and the confessions of a small man. Mysteries like him will never gather dust.
Next, he treats us to the Get Happy therapy with "High Fidelity" and "Secondary Modern," both interspersed with his touching guitar breaks. The songs have a sweet and sour quality, being bouncy fresh music inlaid with bitter voices. These scathing soul hymns are some of his best work and proof that he's rarely beaten to the punch. He seems to know the direction before they are pointed out, after all, not only was he on the spot to produce the Specials album but also conceived a modern soul album before all those young souls realised they were rebels.
Many bands live in his shadow and ride on the slip-streams of the brittle brilliance of his music. Some must be jealously waiting for his first slip but another two new songs, "Never Be A Man" and "Club Land," are good enough on this first hearing to destroy any such hope. He plays with words like a novelist twisting logic and shooting out his story fast and tortured. To be truthful he's a musical sneak thief, mixing American fifties and British sixties pop into early eighties power, at once very familiar and solidly original. Even as the new wave breaks up on the established rocks. Costello moves on, altering images and styles and steering away from self parody to fresh ground.
His fast tumble of abrupt words introduces "Oliver's Army" with a solid wall of Attractions backing to enforce the power of his only real commercial killer. Don't ever forget the band, overshadowed by Costello's image they may be, but they are one of the most accomplished and cohesive bands around. They specialise in producing arrangements that pump up that voice to new heights of racked emotion. The effect becomes spectacular during "Watching The Detectives," a definitive lesson in the use of musical style and lyrical construction to produce a furiously intense mood. The song is like a Raymond Chandler novel put to music. But there are rarely outstanding numbers, every one has the stamp of their quality and his vision. His narrative makes up the kaleidoscope of shattered feelings and small mysteries beating out from his tell-tell heart.
They finished with "You Belong To Me" and rushed off stage, you might even say, fled. "Pump It Up," "Can't Stand Up" and "Mystery Dance" were delivered as three encores, causing the audience to call them back each time for obviously planned numbers. Then they left us alone and satisfied.
Elvis Costello has got success, got happy, got respect and, most of all, got sense, and there is hardly one of his contemporaries who have managed to simultaneously retain all these things and then hold them so tightly in their grasp. Those horn-rims don't mean nothing, he can see the way with 20-20 vision.