“My father, who was the real singer in the family, told me never to sing up to a note. Sing down to it.” This was Elvis Costello on Tuesday night at the Arlington Theatre, and he paused after this quote to gather in bemused giggles. “No, I don’t know what it means either.”
Mr. Costello has spent his 33 years in rock neither up nor down in relationship to notes, but instead fearless in the face of them.
At his solo show at the Arlington, his first visit in 16 years, Costello showed why he is still a vital artist and not a nostalgia act. Out of the 24 songs played in his 90-minute concert, only four were from his classic early years, the songs that corporate radio has in its endless playlist. For the rest, Mr. Costello was more concerned with his last couple of albums and with debuting five new songs. More on them in a moment.
Looking fit and young, Mr. Costello strode onstage in front of a selection of six guitars, strapped one on, and went straight into “45,” his 2002 mid-life-crisis of a song, looking energized, nervous, as if slightly in doubt about the creative force he was channeling. Finishing off the final strum, he held the guitar aloft like a prize, looking out over the audience, with a stance that seemed to say, I’m back.
And so he was. Mr. Costello’s opening set tested the audience and their knowledge as fans. He edged backwards into the 1980s with “Veronica,” and “Brilliant Mistake,” although the reaction suggested he might as well have played a new song. So he did.
Although touring on 2009’s “Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane” — from which he played two songs — Mr. Costello has been busy finishing off a new album. The first of the new songs, “Bullets For The New-Born King” was a ballad about two people contemplating a murder they have just committed. The lyrics are edgy and violent as much as they are elegiac.
The version of “Every Day I Write the Book” followed, with the arrangement that Mr. Costello admits he took from Ron Sexsmith, stripping the song of its ’80s production, but leaving the deft wordplay and pure pop changes. Not bad for a song he dashed off in 10 minutes.
After “Bedlam,” which still remains a bit of a nonstarter, Mr. Costello sat down after announcing a “special guest” — himself. “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” debuted a few months back when Mr. Costello played “A Prairie Home Companion” and was yet another fabulous song that trumps his most recent output. The singer has always been interested in the songwriters of his father’s generation — his dad was a longtime member of the Joe Loss Orchestra — and over the years he’s attempted to get close to the combination of wordplay, deft jazz changes and effortlessness found in Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter. But a song like “God’s Comic” — played this evening — from 1989’s “Spike,” always fell near the finish line. Too pleased with itself, straining for comic effect, these kind of diversions have always weighed down his output since the early ’90s.
But “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” and then a completely acoustic — no mics, just Mr. Costello sitting on the edge of the stage using the Arlington’s natural acoustics — “Slow Drag with Josephine” suggested that he might have just managed to pull it off. The songs sound like they’ve been pulled from an alternative universe, where Mr. Costello was born in 1920, instead of looking back at that time. The lyrics are funny, but there are no nods and winks to make sure we are in on the joke.
Back in 2010, Mr. Costello continued with a distortion-filled “Watching the Detectives,” using digital delay to loop himself (not entirely well). “Alison” turned into “In Another Room,” a song whose fate deserves better than a 2004 bonus track. The encore section, nearly as long as the main concert, included an obscure cover (“Lucky Dog”), the always devastating “Man Out of Time” and a cover of Lawrence/Altman’s standard “All or Nothing at All,” which shares about 90 percent of its DNA with Mr. Costello’s own “Almost Blue.” The audience was fooled enough right up to the first syllable to clap in advance.
Two final songs from what looks to be Mr. Costello’s best work in years finished us off: “The Spell That You Cast” and “One Bell Ringing” are mysterious, with the latter sounding like “Zuma”-era Neil Young, covered in lashings of mini-riffs and hooks.
Acquiescing to the request for one more song, Mr. Costello called it quits with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the Animals/Nina Simone song he first covered in 1986. Mr. Costello has always traversed the violence of the song, sung as an egotistical, unreliable narrator, but always saved with a little sing-along in the chorus. We share in his narrator’s crime. Aren’t we all a little bit selfish in our love? Mr. Costello suggests he might be going in a very interesting direction in 2010. Watch this space.