Elvis Costello is peeved again. That's the good news.
During the first decade of his multi-chaptered career, few artists converted anger into melody with such manic productivity and none with such intelligence and boiling wit. Starting in the late '70s, hostility was one of Costello's trademarks, to the point that during one early tour, he performed for less than an hour, then cleared concert halls with ear-splitting distortion. His shows often felt like tantrums, but you couldn't begrudge him his dander, since it gave rise to such lastingly great albums, including This Year's Model (1978) and the ironically titled Get Happy (1980).
But in the '90s, Costello coped with a common affliction among the truly creative: He got bored. Worse, he matured. His anger softened into an academic's curiosity, and he took a sabbatical from rock for forays into jazz (working with Bill Frisell), classical (the Brodsky Quartet) and a soft-pop co-writing gig with Burt Bacharach on 1998's Painted From Memory. The merits of these projects aside — the classical stuff got roughed up pretty bad — a lot of fans wished Costello would abandon the wine and brie and forget his manners, just like the old days.
On Sunday night at a sold-out Wolf Trap, he came pretty close.
Now 46, Costello is touring behind When I Was Cruel, an album that pounds at the viscera with all the intensity of his anger-management days, though with a degree of lyrical sophistication that seems, at moments, better suited for the theater than a rock concert.
Looking plumper in the middle and dressed in a black suit, Costello at times tried elaborate hand gestures to annotate the complicated intrigue of his new material, but they didn't always help. You need a lyric sheet and a good 15 minutes of quiet time to digest all the nuances of songs like "When I Was Cruel No. 2," which is why the tune is more satisfying in your living room than at a live show. The guy has gone so highbrow he occasionally goes right over your head.
The more primitive new stuff fared better. Like "Alibi," which is one long and articulate sneer, and which had the crowd howling out the chorus's call and response. (Elvis: "Papa got a brand new — " Audience: "Alibi! Alibi!")
But Elvis earned his biggest reactions by reaching back in time. Superbly backed by drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve — two of the three members of his original band, the Attractions — Costello lingered over a slowed-down version of "Clown Time Is Over," drenching it in torchy anguish. A good chunk of This Year's Model was resuscitated, including "Lipstick Vogue," the middle of which became a jam with Elvis thrashing at his guitar with ham-handed glee. "You Belong to Me" was sloppier than the original, but still felt like a '50s dance tune dipped in sulfuric acid. "Radio, Radio" and "Pump It Up" were delivered with all of their original vehemence intact.
Throughout, Nieve was the band's mad scientist, devising ever-more novel sounds from his instruments, which included a miniature theremin, and giving a few of the new songs a spacey, outer-planet feel.
Costello is quite a gracious if surprisingly taciturn performer now, despite the hair-trigger temper of his new songs. He left the stage for the first time about halfway through the show, which allowed him to return for at least a baker's dozen of additional songs, and gave the very distinct sense that he likes being loved. There's a rage again in his music, but it feels a little less frightening these days.