Usually, when Elvis Costello sings "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," the accent is on the peace and understanding. His take on the Nick Lowe tune — so definitive it's better called a steal — is a protest cry for brainy, bitter idealists, rueful that intelligent co-operation is so scarce in this wicked world.
With long-time pianist Steve Nieve at Massey Hall on Monday, Costello got in his political shots, mainly at U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney. But his sharpest arrows struck nearer home. Suddenly his anthem demanded to be heard the way Bill Murray serenaded Scarlett Johanssen with it in the karaoke bar in Lost In Translation: What is so funny about love?
Till recently, nobody knew the answer better, and how to couch his mockery in multilevel puns, through two dozen albums after 1977's My Aim Is True. But in the course of Costello's second divorce and third marriage (to B.C. jazz-pop singer Diana Krall, of course), he had an epiphany it takes certain men 50 years to reach: What if sophistication is unsophisticated? What if surrendering wholly to love is not for chumps?
And so the onetime punk, later known for his expeditions into various styles, tries a more hazardous, emotional experiment — a CD called North, of crooner piano tunes that bluntly confess his terror and pleasure in going ga-ga, with no escape clauses. As Costello told Monday's crowd, "These are the most extremely quiet songs I've ever written, love songs every one of them, and they generally make people furious."
North is the grownup version of emo, in which howling teens natter on about their girlfriends. But the grownup part matters: As Costello's self-ribbing in "Let Me Tell You About Her" shows, he's aware why you may cringe and scoff. Fine. If fools fall in love, he'll be a fool.
Nieve and Costello have done duo shows between band gigs for years. But now the stripped-down context left the singer especially unguarded.
Often he was without a guitar, leaning at the microphone, and several times even stepped away and sang unamplified into the hall. It was as nervy as walking out on a tightrope, and it brought the room onto the wire with him.
Beforehand, I'd heard one guy mutter, "Where's the friggin' drum kit? If there ain't no friggin' drum kit, I'm leavin'. " There was no friggin' drum kit. But the man stayed, like everybody else — for three hours.
Costello repaid the audience's embrace of his risk-taking with a spectacle of Springsteen-worthy proportions: 36 songs, including three encores averaging six songs each.
Besides nine from North (including the joshing title tribute to Canada, left off the official release), Costello and Nieve performed eccentric reinventions of everything from 1977's "Watching the Detectives" to Costello's recent Oscar-nominated song for the film Cold Mountain (on ukulele) and much more, with a stress on rarities and occasional comic monologues.
Floppy-haired Nieve's flashy rococo flourishes on piano, melodica and synthesizer helped give away how his partner pulls it all off: Costello is more brilliant music-hall showman, like his bandleader dad, than he ever was a punk.
He finally closed with Memphis soul classic "At the Dark End of the Street," including an audience sing-along and the unaided-voice effect again. I lost count of standing ovations.
Yet lest fans fear he's gone permanently runny, Costello also unveiled five new songs with a beat and a bite. "Delivery Man," for instance, concerns three elderly ladies lusting for a figure who recalls the blues' "candy man," yet also "seems a bit like Jesus." Oh, and "in a certain light, he looks like Elvis."
Rest assured, Elvis Costello still gets the punch line to his signature tune: What's so funny? Nothing. And everything, too.