Midway through his first Palladium show on Saturday, Elvis Costello tried to goad the audience into dancing with the words: "We've been waiting a long time to come back to New York ... And now you had better be good." No action; the audience was enthusiastic, but inhibited. They had already given him their cheers and applause — he wanted more, a "more" which was never very clearly defined, hut whose absence was clearly frustrating to the man on stage. He had proven himself, he seemed to be saying, simply by getting there. Now the burden of proof was on us.
No doubt, Costello enjoys the irony of being able to make such demands. Part of the reason why most punk hasn't broken through commercially is that its aggressive insularity makes the mass audience seem almost irrelevant. But Costello believes intensely in his own cultural importance, believes that his perceptions are equal to any reality, and he needs the audience as an arena, to confirm him by confrontation. He is always pestering you to work him out and explain what makes him tick; the force of his ego charges the question with urgency no matter how hard it is to answer.
Thematically, his first album, My Aim Is True, had the clarity of a textbook exercise in modernism: existence was presented as unmitigated horror, the fervor of the music offered as the tool of redemption — and vengeance. On one song, "(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes," Costello even played on the Faust legend, with himself in the lead. This sort of artist-hero mythmaking would have been insufferably arch but for the wit and fury Costello brought to the role, and the knotty lyrical twists of his music. If he was as self-obsessed a verbal showoff as any young poet — his tight-lipped control as prideful an expression of artistic egoism as Patti Smith's visionary excess — he was also the sadistic underside of Woody Allen, and his command of rock 'n' roll galvanized his fans' secret identification with him into shameless pleasure. Self-hatred is a great common denominator.
In fact, Costello as vengeful auteur, come out of the basement and sublimating the world right into oblivion, remains the most vivid — almost the only — image from My Aim Is True. Now, with wonderful arrogance, he treats stardom as no more than his due; having avenged his rejection by the world, he threatens to reject us unless we can make life worth his while. There's still something adolescent about this ultimatum, but at least Costello has learned to deal with the rest of humanity, to acknowledge it as the solipsistic Costello of My Aim Is True never did. On This Year's Model, the familiar themes — misogyny, guilt, betrayal — are still present, but now they operate in a flesh-and-blood human context — the targets are no longer made out of straw. The songs open up to the listener instead of shutting themselves off. "Hand in Hand" begins like a leftover from My Aim Is True: "Don't ask me to apologize / I won't ask you to forgive me." But then there's a change: "If I'm gonna go down, you're gonna come with me." The earlier Costello would have insisted on remaining alone, even at the end of his rope. The foundations of his character remain hatred and fear, whether of the opposite sex, society, or himself; for Costello, they're usually all one and the same. But expressing the hatred liberates him, and the barreling, break-loose energy of his new band, the Attractions, carries home the message that it's not only liberating but fun: negation has a joy all its own.
Costello still makes his private grudges a metaphor for reality; one suspects he thinks of history as so much trash on his doorstep — a personal affront. But now he almost demands that the audience use him, make him the vehicle of a resentment he now wants them to share. "I don't want to be your lover," he says on "The Beat," "I just want to be your victim." And, by implication, everybody's. The recurring motif of This Year's Model is the destruction of emptiness, whether on the ostensibly individual level of Costello's songs about women, or when the emptiness infects a whole culture, as on "Radio Radio." The only alternative to nihilism, Costello insists, is to force meaning into every act — and if the only instruments at hand happen to be masochism, revenge, and woman-hating, well, he shrugs, take it or leave it.
Right now, increasing numbers of people seem willing to take it, but Costello is too self-aware an artist to be content with that success. He is still restless, experimenting with the different uses to which he can put his anger, pushing his audience to new connections; he is even, perhaps, starting to look at what that anger might leave behind. "Radio Radio," the climactic song on This Year's Model in more ways than one, marks the first time Costello has identified himself completely with the audience, in the line, "They really think we're getting out of control." For Costello, that is a profoundly hopeful, romantic image. A new song called "Party Girl" opens up other possibilities. It begins as another accumulation of evidence against another typical Costello bitch, wickedly specific in its details; but it ends, "I would give you anything, I would give you anything." When Costello sang those lines at the Palladium, there was real, unexpected tenderness in his voice. Such moments suggest that even a superbly realized work like This Year's Model may be no more than a transition, a resting-place on Elvis Costello's unsentimental journey.