Declan MacManus is looking a tad frumpy these days, his trousers kind of filled in in all the wrong places and his hairline taking a decided run to the north. And his trademark black-rimmed glasses, the Lone Ranger mask that transforms him into his adopted persona of Elvis Costello, make him look less like a young Buddy Holly these days and more like a mature Phil Silvers.
But there was no question during his sold-out, two-hour show at the Fillmore Wednesday night that the masses had come to worship Elvis, not to worry about middle-age spread. And Costello, who played every song from his new album, All This Useless Beauty, reveled in a friendly crowd willing to listen to his new material and not just shout wildly for his older hits, though some people, naturally, did this anyway.
Costello's new work, with his long-time associates, The Attractions, finds the singer exploring some finely crafted songs with intensely singable melodies. Performing at the Fillmore with an acoustic guitar and Attractions' keyboardist Steve Nieve on a grand piano, Costello seemed determined to really sing his songs, and not just toss them off with an attitude or a few witty lines. Nobody has ever really taken Costello much for a singer — his fame and following revolve around the almost stunning wordplay he is capable of within his lyrics. So much so, in fact, that sometimes the composition of the song as a whole gets lost in the search for meaning.
It seemed that Costello wasn't going to let that happen tonight, working out simple, elegant arrangements for the songs that showcased his more than capable voice. Some of the songs on the new album, particularly the title track and "The Other End of the Telescope," which he wrote with Aimee Mann, were remarkably beautiful. Others, like "Starting To Come to Me" and "Shallow Grave," would have benefited from the entire Attractions band being on hand to pump the kind of life into the songs they need in order to go over better.
Costello's songwriting remains marvelous, and he's gotten back to a fairly straight-forward approach to the craft, not bothering to confuse the public for the sake of his own entertainment. In an old interview, Costello discussed how he came to some realizations about songwriting:
"Once I discovered ambiguity and irony could be strong techniques," he said, "I started thinking that obscurity was as well. You start kidding yourself that a song is really evocative, and the fact is it isn't. It's just muddled. If it isn't clear, it isn't evocative."
The clarity of Costello's recent writing is evident in a song like "Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?" which he performed to roaring approval. "Why can't a man stand alone? Must he be burdened by all that he's taught to consider his own? His skin and his station, his kind and his crown, his flag and his nation they just weigh him down..."
Costello performed the songs with an unburdened voice that allowed the audience to hear the lyrics from the new record, which they may not have been familiar with. Of his two dozen songs, he also took the opportunity to toss in old favorites, including a version of the Grateful Dead's "Ship of Fools" performed solely because it was requested at top voice out of the audience.
The crowd probably would have been pleased with whatever songs Costello chose from his extensive catalog, but by tossing in "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" from My Aim Is True, he guaranteed that attendees would have a most memorable evening. Costello and the Attractions are returning to the Bay Area for an Aug. 30 date at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, with tickets for that show going on sale on Sunday, July 28.