Last night the promise of Armed Forces was fulfilled. Elvis Costello's latest album is the best rock 'n' roll record of recent years, and it was translated to the stage of McDonough Arena with all its original power and then some.
In little more than an hour, Costello and his three-man band, the Attraction, stormed through 19 songs. The short set left many in the crowd dissatisfied, but every song had an intensity seldom achieved on rock 'n' roll stages.
Costello sang his often disturbing lyrics with a fervor, indifferent to acceptance — with his sense of sureness, he didn't need it.
In "Chemistry Class," he asked with a sneering taunt: "Are you ready for the final solution?" He spoke for himself with rousing resistance in "Goon Squad": "They'll never make a lampshade out of me."
Costello, on his last visit to Washington, mostly emphasized rock basics. Last night he used the more ambitious arrangements of the new album.
Costello shouted over and over in a new song: "Don't turn around." He didn't: he sang only one song from his first album, seven from the new one and five unrecorded songs. Most of the songs were compressed into economical three-minute statements. But three — "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea," "Watching the Detectives" and "Lipstick Vogue" — were extended into long theatrical pieces, Costello mimed the lyrics and he and keyboardist Steve Naive performed impressive duets on instrumental breaks.
Such intensity is difficult to achieve in the studio. It's even harder night after night on tour. It requires either a fanatical sense of mission or a superb sense of drama. With Costello, one suspects it's a bit of both.