"Ah'm sick ay that new Elvis Costello, bit ah cannae stoap playing [him]," says a junkie drug-dealer at the start of Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting. "Fucking magic man, ah'm telling you."
That's the way it is with Costello, who has always been able to write songs that go straight into the bloodstream. But until recently his mind was on other gigs. His adventures with string quartets and Burt Bacharach left a lonely ache with those still hooked on his biting three-minute singles.
Their cravings were answered last month, with the release of When I Was Cruel ("first loud album since '94!" said the blurbs), and on Wednesday, when the magic man himself appeared at Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre. The fans happily renewed their addiction.
The show sketched a rollicking portrait of Costello then and now, with a three-piece band that was the old Attractions but for one member (bassist Bruce Thomas, replaced by Davey Faragher). Costello and friends (the others were Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums) performed eight songs from the new disc and about a dozen from 1980 or earlier, when the chief Impostor was still skinny and spiteful.
The spite hasn't completely dissipated, as he showed during a couple of tart-tongued introductions to new songs. But the subversive thrills of a number such as "Radio, Radio" are a bit muted now, with classic status descending on it, and Costello back on the radio himself.
Many of the old songs sounded nearly as fresh as the day they were made. The impatience of long familiarity showed itself a few times, in a hurried version of "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," and in a performance of "Watching the Detectives," in which Costello either lost his place in the lyrics or made a game of pretending to do so.
Several of the new songs opened out handsomely in live performance, which more than made up for the canned horns on numbers such as "15 Petals." Nieve's keyboards were a constant source of changing colours, and toward the end of the show he hauled out a Theremin to get spooky on the new single, "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)." "Clown Strike," one of the few songs from the nineties, strayed outside the crisp new-wave style of the rest of the show, with a finger-snapping beat and a brief aphoristic fantasia on the line "because I love you."
It's a measure of Costello's craft, and the relative timelessness of his best material, that old and new could mix together so easily. All the virtues of his early music — the sharp wordplay, the inventive melodic lines and the propulsive harmonies — are still at work today.
Several numbers segued straight into others, to electrifying effect. Two hours after the first chords, the tunes were still pouring out. Costello has always been generous in performance, which makes it hard to understand why he tours so little. Too busy, perhaps.
Joe Henry opened the show with a monotonous solo set that hid the merits of his sometimes intriguing songwriting. He might have done himself better service by staying home.