It was a harsh, piledriving show The Attractions played. Costello's music has always had a brutal undertow, and in a live setting his songs surrender their soul affiliations and go straight to the garage. The Attractions, a garage band for their entire existence, played it foursquare-tough.
The first half of this "Costello Sings Again" season was practically a traditional affair; without guests and with one solo interlude, it was the sort of show they might have played around the time of Armed Forces. The exhausting tally of 30 songs covered all except the countrified areas of Costello's work, and Elvis directed all his truculence at his own lyrics.
Hearing the torrent of Costello's songs always provokes a fresh gasp at his incredible persistence with the medium. But it also lets slip how few truly outstanding numbers he's written. Something like "New Lace Sleeves" is casually stuffed with ingenuities without finding the finish of a classic song. Costello is full of offhand mastery that has never quite had the focus of meticulous tunesmithing. It would be less obvious if The Attractions were a band of great panache, but the two Thomases play blunt instruments and Steve Nieve, for all his inventive dazzle, is almost a kitsch element in such a dour sound.
But this is judging an extraordinary pop art by the highest standards. Costello still offers a severity and a gut-level determination.
The encore selections from his Spinning Songbook — this is showbiz, after all — were galloped through, but they touched a relentless nerve that this band sometimes misses. "Leave My Kitten Alone" was furious. And it was another cover, one Elvis has been promising for years, that really set the night on fire.
Abba's "Knowing Me Knowing You" is a pop masterpiece, and it stood in this set like a king amongst commoners. There is more heartbreak in that than in satanic, self-regarding songs like "I Want You," which was the evening's great setpiece.
How did Elvis sing it? We'll discuss Himself, and The Confederates, next week.