Obliging bloke that he is, Elvis Costello appeases the rabid loyalists in his fan base with a clamorous, straightforward rock record every eight years, like clockwork.
After all, Costello's sense of pop has grown more wide-ranging and intricate since his late '70s glory days as a hyper-literate punk fellow traveler, so that even when he isn't dabbling in classical excursions or Burt Bacharach collaborations, he can seem a bit ornate.
When I Was Cruel is the latest of Costello's back-to-basics efforts, and it's an honorable one. But after the expert bludgeoning those new songs received at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis on Wednesday, that album may forever sound fussy and tame by comparison.
Dressed in his standard black suit and classic Buddy Holly horn-rims, Costello justifiably focused on his strong new material, but he gave the diehards a rousing historical tour that stretched back to his 1977 debut as well. The crowd was attentive and well-schooled in the man's back catalogue — they recognized a drastically slowed and altered version of the 20-year-old album track "Clowntime Is Over" from the first line. Fittingly, many of these oldies came from 1986's Blood and Chocolate, 1994's Brutal Youth and his perfect distillation of rage, 1978's "This Year's Model." (I told you, every eight years.)
Costello was backed by the Imposters, a three-piece band featuring two thirds of the Attractions, the band that powered many of his classic '70s and '80s albums.
Keyboardist Steve Nieve offered up both melodic color and rhythmic wallop, as he ranged from a semi-classical piano tinkle to carnival-esque organ whorls to a low-end stadium techno thump. Bruce Thomas (sic) remains as nuanced a drummer as he is heavy-hitting.
No matter how accurately a band executes hairpin arrangements at energetic speeds, of course, the results are teeter on the edge of hectic clutter. But Costello and his men never succumbed. Though it seemed as if certain songs would come unsprung and shoot gears and sprockets in all directions, the force at the center kept them in check.
That focal point, of course, was Costello. His voice is an amazing instrument — apparently pinched and limited on first listen, it gradually stretches from a husky soulfulness to an indignant cry that lends his elliptical narratives. Costello also stepped out front as an unorthodox but compelling soloist, punctuating "Watching the Detectives" with reverbed guitar snarls and mangling atonal chromatic runs on "I Want You."
Just wait until you hear how he rocks in 2010.