“Mouth almighty, that's what I've got“ sings Elvis Costello on his latest album, pretty much summing up his place in the rock and roll canon. No songwriter in the idiom has such a flair for twisting and playing with the English language — sometimes with great force and emotional power, and sometimes, as on much of the new Punch the Clock, achieving only (to paraphrase the Bible) the effect of clanging cymbals without music.
But at the Universal Amphitheater Sunday night, the obtuse emotional emptiness of his recent material suddenly seemed almost forgivable. Costello's singing was so impassioned, and the gussy R&B arrangements of old and new songs alike so punchy, that even Ray Charles might have been tempted to forget past sins and offer congratulations.
At the beginning of the concert, with the Attractions augmented by the four-member TKO Horns and female backing vocals of Afrodiziak, it seemed as if Costello might use the occasion as an opportunity to redefine his entire concert repertoire in the radical fashion of Bob Dylan's Budokan-era tour or David Bowie's latest swing. And indeed, that's what the first and final thirds of the two-hour performance were, with chestnuts ranging from "Possession" to the closing "Pump It Up" receiving the soul revue treatment.
But, perhaps sensing it a bit early in his career to become his own revisionist, Elvis also let the horn players and singers leave the stage mid-show while he and the basic three-man lineup of the Attractions roared through standards like "Red Shoes" and "Peace, Love and Understanding." Even these weren't completely safe, as Steve Nieve was likely to introduce a new piano flourish here and there that would give each number an entire new tone.
The response? Thunderous applause throughout the two hours, followed by scattered grumbling afterward from a few would-be purists who probably would have been among the booers at Dylan's first electric concert.
Punch the Clock (Columbia) — which readied audiences for Costello's move toward the Stax / Volt sound of the '60s displayed so fervently in concert — is a less satisfying affair, at even turns aggravating and charming. The sound, produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Dexy's Midnight Runners), delivers the punch guaranteed in the title and then some with a series of terrific horn riffs.
But Costello's lyrics continue in the ominous direction of most of last year's Imperial Bedroom, eschewing his early honesty and directness for a needlessly wordy obscurity. The puns and wordplay that used to reinforce his ideas now seem to hide the void in the songs.
It's been said that while Elvis used to be bitter and clever, now he's just clever, and it isn't quite the same. Faced with this criticism, Costello is likely to respond that audiences want him to stay an Angry Young Man forever. Not necessarily angry, Elvis — we'd just like to know that you're feeling something.
The best songs on the last two albums are those in which Costello plays the least games with his listeners, from the catchy single "Everyday I Write the Book" to the mournful "Shipbuilding," a powerful ballad written during the Falklands era describing a town looking forward to a coming war.
With no less than five songs culled from Costello's most underrated effort, 1980's Get Happy!!, the concert made one nostalgic for the days when Elvis exuded both musical soul and spiritual soul. His new music is a textbook case of content losing out to form.
But it's not an entirely unhappy defeat. There was pure musical joy in the exuberant rediscovery of old forms, making the Universal appearance one of the happiest musical events of recent times. And in the long run, there is something to be said for cleverness alone, after all.