Forget the limp collaboration with Burt Bacharach. Ignore the ludicrous album with the operatic soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Elvis Costello has always sounded at his best with The Attractions. And so it proved at this one-off date to launch his new album, When I Was Cruel. Backed by The Imposters — in reality, former Attractions Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve plus bass player Davey Faragher — he successfully tramped down any lingering misgivings that he might have gone soft.
Sensibly, Costello surrounded the new songs with old favourites and set off with such breakneck urgency that after barely half an hour he was already into the eighth number A pneumatic version of "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" inevitably raised the loudest cheer. But Costello attracts the kind of obsessive following which meant balding fortysomething males were singing along to every word of new songs such as "Dust" and "Spooky Girlfriend." Which was kind of impressive in a scary sort of way, given that the album had been in the shops just two days.
The oddest thing was that songs that sound tuneless on the album here came alive, with Steve Nieve's keyboards in particular adding extra texture. This was most striking on "Alibi." The song is a lyrically dazzling exploration of guilt and blame. Yet when Costello had unveiled it solo during the Landmines concerts in January, it had sounded unrelenting and excruciating. Here, with Nieve's embellishments and Pete Thomas driving from behind his kit, the song was reinvented and given a welcome new dynamism. The sequencer-enhanced "When I Was Cruel" was also impressive, with a vocal on which Costello sounded not unlike some crazy old wino staggering down the street and muttering to himself.
"Pump It Up" and "Lipstick Vogue" were held for the first encore and were incendiary. But, hoping that he had kept the best until last, we called him back again. He didn't disappoint, ending the show with an intense reading of "I Want You," the chilling depiction of obsession from 1986's recently reissued Blood And Chocolate.
Yes, The Imposter is back. This year's model may not have quite the same febrile tension of old. But it's still a bloody sight sharper than crooning with Burt Bacharach.