Elvis Costello is the most pugnacious of social critics in rock music, a Jonathan Swift armed with an amplifier. If '80s rock is to return to a mission of reproach and revolution, Costello's trenchant commentary will provide the campaign slogan.

It seems appropriate that Costello, who blasted through a nearly seamless 90 minutes at the Merriweather Post Pavilion last night, had a brief career as a computer programmer; he seems the quintessentially alienated post-boom baby. His lyrics encompass "character assassination" as naturally as Chubby Checker's did "The Twist." He casually summarizes what amounted to the understated Motown counterculture in not only his rave-up of the O'Jays "Back Stabbers" and Smokey Robinson's "From Head to Toe" but also in the R&B then one-two-three of "Kid About It" from his new album, "Imperial Bedroom."

Costello and keyboard wizard Steve Nieve are a kind of Grimmer Twins. Nieve, who disconcertingly resembles Elton John as the Mad Hatter, provides not so much a wall of sound as a concrete bomb shelter. The only quibble with Costello's powerful performance would be that the accelerated pace occasionally submerged the lyrics. The pen may be mightier than the chord, but the chord is louder.