Elvis Costello, the iconoclast's iconoclast. More than any other member of the new wave Class (for want of a better term) of 1977, Declan MacManus (I can't resist ratting on his real name) has depended on being misunderstood as a vital component of his appeal. Anyone who sings "When I said I was lying I might have been lying" (as on "The Imposter" from Get Happy!!) obviously isn't to be trusted and enjoys it that way. Adding to the El's mystique is the somewhat chancy experience of hearing him perform live — stories of 45-minute sets and chillingly terse stage movements fill the hearts and minds of the nearly 20,000 occupants of Beetles and Dusters and Mustangs and Volvos filling the Sports Arena Garage of No Return in anticipation of Costello's only 1982 show west of the Mississippi.
Even so, I can't help remembering Elvis' last show in San Francisco in January 1981, where he seemed cordial and friendly (and very very fat) while premiering the songs from Trust. There, the immediacy of the songs seemed to belie the opacity of the lyrics — "Clubland's" smoky cabaret piano in particular sounding a simultaneous death knell for angry-young-mannerisms and a dinner bell for accessibility.
Over the holidays in Los Angeles, Costello continued the trend of gentility by treating the enthusiastic audience to a 2½-hour show of the material that established him as the most sophisticated songwriter to emerge from — or is that help define? — the new wave influence on pop music. Indeed, he introduced one of his songs to the crowd by saying, "This one's for you who we love so much." Truly Elvis' legendary distaste for audiences has become a thing of the past — can this be the same Costello who refused to talk between songs, hurrying through performances so he could go backstage and concentrate on his prolific songwriting output?
Though kinder to his concert audiences, Costello has retained the creative tensions and bitter edges that motivate him to write songs with less of a passion than a vengeance. While focusing on the distaff side of romance and breakup, Costello does not indulge in either the manic screams and anarchic yelps that lesser musicians call rebellion or the maudlin sentiment that others call romance.
Almost as if to emphasize this point, Elvis has been spending an inordinate amount of time recently indulging his love of country music, devoting all of his latest album, Almost Blue, to his versions of others' country standards. While the record itself isn't great — the arrangements lack a certain punch that hits from all over on Elvis' other works, and the steel guitar (provided by the Doobies' John McFee, who played guitar on My Aim is True) has never been a favorite — the motivations behind it make the slab of wax interesting as a cultural artifact. The reasoning of Almost Blue could be the same as why there are no restrooms in banks — it runs into money. Now that Elvis Costello is considered a hot item, he has the chance to experiment and fantasize to his heart's content, for us ignorant slobs will pay to hear him all the same.
Indeed, many have voiced fears that the El's preoccupation with country music on Almost Blue signals an end to his creativity and sophistication. However, the Los Angeles show proved them wrong. Indeed, Costello may be only beginning to mature as a performer. In "I'm Your Toy," an old Gram Parsons ballad, he even sings the line, "I wouldn't lie — you know I'm not that kind of guy." Hmm. Either that's more ambiguity than I care to discuss, or there's a softening in the maturing punk. I'm inclined toward the latter view.
In another act of maturity (and common sense), Elvis acknowledged that many of those present were not there to hear his country songs by asking the audience to sit back and relax through his first, almost entirely country set (the most notable exception was a rousing opening of "Watching the Detectives") and that he would come back to play a second set of traditional Costello favorites. But even during the less conventional songs, Costello marked himself as a vocal stylist with few peers. His performance of "Almost Blue," with its languorous piano background and smoke-and-bourbon lyrics, was so stunning as to belie the image of country songs as simplistic paeans to rustic values of rural ignorance. Costello managed to take the traumatic power of a song like "Alison" and magnify it through Almost Blue's country idiom, as if the distinction between the uncommon despair of the lyrics and the common, familiar musical patterns did not offset each other but rather emphasized the feeling behind Costello's masterful vocal performance. It is no wonder that Costello, a kid who used to sing as funny as he looks, has as his country heroes stars like George Jones, for whom the lyrics and music of any particular song were always incidental to the power of an emotion-laden voice.
Costello's vocal mastery was not limited to the country portion of the show. He sang his old songs, from Get Happy!! and Armed Forces and My Aim is True, with a sense of clarity and attack that improved even on the familiar recorded versions of those songs. His new material — he performed at least an hour's worth of songs written since the release of Almost Blue only four months ago — seemed written to take advantage of this newfound concentration on voice while retaining Costello's clever and imaginative lyricism. Unfortunately, much of the audience will have to await Costello's next album to fully appreciate the new lyrics — the cavernous Sports Arena swallowed much of the nuance and crispness that mark his songs.
The sound problems were not fully resolved until Costello's third and final encore. Perhaps his business manager told him that since fans were now paying $8 to $12 a ticket instead of the $3 shows in the late '70s, he had to play longer than he used to. Still, Costello seemed to be motivated less by financial responsibility than by a general desire to keep the fun and magic rolling. At one point in the encore, the arena house lights came up, flooding the entire scene in brightness and briefly lending a high-school-gym-sock-hop atmosphere to what was truly a holiday occasion.
In any event, the final encore improved on the first two in sound quality, length (four songs instead of two), and impeccable selection of songs. Elvis and the Attractions got everyone dancing with his early "Red Shoes," then settled into a treatment of "Alison" that would bring tears to a stone. Not one to leave on a sorrowful note, Costello swung into "Mystery Dance" — a song he can still do and leave no one unsatisfied.
In anticipation of the New Year, Elvis Costello left a parting message to Los Angeles: "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" The answer? Nothing, and there's no better songwriter in popular music today.