Elvis Costello is every nerd's revenge. Last night at O'Keefe Centre he demonstrated just how potent an emotion resentment can be. Especially when it is wielded with the consummate control of a master stylist. At this point in his career, Costello gives off so much cool confidence that he makes pigeon-toed awkwardness look like elegance.
Costello has made art out of adolescent rejection. His lyrics and music revise the fifties high school cliches, recasting them in an ironic and savage mode. In songs like "No Action" and "Lip Service," from his second album, This Year's Model, he articulates a sneering kind of rage at the pretty girls who won't come across and give him their hearts — or anything else, for that matter. The uncharacteristically lengthy "Watching the Detectives," in which the singer takes vengeance on a girl who was stuck on TV heroes by having her disappear literally into the set, got a turbulent reading last night with some interesting new musical suggestions. In Britain, this piece is generally considered to be Costello's best so far.
Costello encouraged the audience to rise to their feet shortly after he began playing, and there most of them stayed, for the duration. Yet the music he plays, despite the fact that it's pounding, churning rock 'n' roll, is not dancing music. It's somehow too cerebral for that. And despite the massive energy Costello emits, he is in essence a conceptual artist; the loser turned rock 'n' roll star, his ungainly spasms transformed into the intricate choreography of charisma.
What's really special about Costello is that there have never been any cracks in his persona. The hollow voice is amazingly anonymous and there isn't a second he's up on the stage that he himself seems in any way apart from this creature with the sullen lower lip and the eyes of a cornered lemur. The only difference is that this fellow Costello seems to be growing a slightly more self-assured social attitude — what with all this social acceptance. The long-term effect on his music of leaving rejection behind still remains to be seen. Perhaps the rock 'n' roll star will take over from the conceptualist, though let's hope never at the expense of the ironist who protests the loss of his liberties so intelligently in "Radio, Radio."
The rock group that yesterday changed its name from Battered Wives to The Wives under pressure from various women's organizations across the country, opened the concert. "What's our name?" yelled the lead singer when they came out. Few people in the audience answered. Whatever their names, the four musicians need a lot more theatrical finesse in their "punk" and musical finesse in their "rock 'n' roll." Crude energy they have plenty of already.