Elvis Costello at the House of Blues, 2002
By Mark Guarino
Within the first ten minutes of his show at the House of Blues Sunday, Elvis Costello knocked out “Waiting For the End of the World” and “Watching the Detectives,” two whipsmart songs that sounded like they were written yesterday.
Except they weren’t. Costello recorded the songs in 1977 for a debut record that remains a cornerstone of pop music and introduced the Irish pop savant as the punk era’s sharpest tongue.
Twenty-five years later, Costello still sports his Buddy Holly frames and hasn’t lost the scratchy sneer in his brogue. But his biography has widened to include collaborations with individuals as far afield from three-chord pop as you can get: jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, classical string group the Brodsky Quartet, the Charles Mingus Orchestra and ‘60s pop composer Burt Bacharach among others.
Stretching his palate has only whet the taste for Costello, 47, to come back the fiery low-brow wit he once was. Which, after six years, he has with his new pop-ready album, “When I Was Cruel” (Island), in stores today. But as the title implies, Costello has little nostalgia about his youth spent as a legendary angry young man. In fact singing the title song Sunday, he took the biggest shot at himself, remembering when he was “a spoilt child then with a record to plug … (who) is still getting paid too much.”
Instead of making the obvious choices of someone with such a bulky songbook, Costello tailored his 21-song, hour and forty-five minute show around lessor-known nuggets, plus about half his new album. Three-quarters of his veteran band the Attractions (keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas) were reunited along with new bassist Davey Faragher (Cracker, Camper Van Beethovan).
Standing the entire time, Nieve’s jittery keyboard interludes pumped the songs with the feel of a loony, roller rink prom while Thomas’s off center beats kept the tension forever on edge. The setlist’s two major surprises, “Beyond Belief” and “Man Out of Time” (both from his 1982 bedrock album, “Imperial Bedroom”), bubbled with new vitality.
Alongside his past work, Costello debuted new songs, many with a flavor of appeasing his long-time audience. “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” was typical nonsensical synth pop and “45” — an homage to music itself — was a three-minute rocker with typical machinegun precision. And slowing “Alibi” down, Costello even showed the rudimentary spine it shares with “Watching the Detectives.”
The more interesting side of his new work was more heavily ornate. The foundation of “When I was Cruel No. 2” was a one-word looped sample of the ‘60s Italian singer Mina, summoning exotica with the help of a heavily echoed guitar.
And for someone who has written some of the most recognizable melodies of the last 25 years, Costello chose to end the night as a challenge, with the hypnotizing ballad “I Want You,” from 1986 album, “Blood and Chocolate.” Winding it down slowly so only embers of the song flickered, Costello cried the title refrain until, for one moment, even the loudest drunks quieted. And in that second, he stepped backward, slipping out of the spotlight and into the dark once more.