The only concessions Elvis Costello makes are ones that help mystify his designs. artful, ingratiating moves — like Armed Forces that breeze into our lives, then eat steadily at our sense of serenity. But, as Costello made plain in a series of diverse concerts in the Los Angeles area, they remain concessions nonetheless, and sometimes they can undermine even his own dread intentions.
From the moment Elvis scuffled onstage at the spiffy, cavernous Long Beach Arena (curtained in half so he could play to a smaller crowd), he seemed like some leering, jerking marionette being strung along through its scenes. He never missed an inch or risked a step: every possible turn, from the order and arrangements of songs to the switching of mikes and guitars, had been plotted painstakingly, and flowed effortlessly. In other words, the performance lacked the impetuosity that usually marks Elvis' best shows.
Largely, that stemmed from Costello's dependence on Armed Forces material. The new songs (particularly "Accidents Will Happen" "Green Shirt" and "Two Little Hitlers") have tricky classic pop structures like a New Wave Between the Buttons — that make for Elvis' riskiest music to date. They also make for fussy performances that are hard to pull off onstage. At Long Beach, Elvis delivered them with a rigorous yet stiff, almost hurried slant, amounting to little more than an exercise in perfunctory power.
Which isn't to say the show lacked punch. Costello and his gangling Attractions railed through taut versions of "Big Tears," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Lipstick Vogue," Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Sad about Girls," a new ballad by Attractions keyboardist Steve Naive. In addition, Elvis' singing has never sounded more self-possessed, recalling, alternately, a wily McCartney and an impassioned Springsteen. Oddly enough, though, I was reminded even more of another pop artisan: Jackson Browne. Like Browne Costello sings of intimate matters impersonally. Both artists' songs seem to be subterfuge: communiques that create the illusion of disclosure while masking the artists' true passions and disillusions.
Elvis' two shows at the Palomino were much more venturesome. Following rampageous readings of songs from This Year's Model and Armed Forces (the go-for-the-throat versions of "Goon Squad" and "Green Shirt" made the album tracks seem callow in comparison), Elvis and the Attractions, with the aid of lead guitarist John McFee from Clover (the support band on My Aim Is True), launched into a lengthy set of — what could be more mystifying? — country music.
Musically, Elvis sounded a lot like Graham Parker storming through Heat Treatment; spiritually, like Gram Parsons baiting his demons before they became friends. In short, transfixing. Without a trace of mockery, Elvis weaved his way deftly around — McFee s steel-guitar fills in Jim Reeves "He'll Have to Go" and George Jones' "(If I Put Them All Together) I'd Have You," then brought the rowdy house to a stunned hush with an eerie rendition of his own "Stranger in the House." At the end, in quick succession, he tossed out "Alison," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Mystery Dance," then calmly, almost indifferently, took his leave. For the first time, I came away from an Elvis Costello concert with the feeling that something, after all, had been revealed.