Just three years ago Elvis Costello seemed trapped--artistically and commercially--by an "angry young man" image of his own device. Fortunately, he has broken through that image to make his music more generous, more subtle and ultimately more satisfying. And Costello was in that congenial mood at the Merriweather Post Pavilion last night as he presented 29 songs that ranged broadly from whispered jazz reflections to punchy soul shouts.
He sang songs from every stage of his six-year career but revamped many of them with new arrangements that transformed their character. As he alternated melancholy ballads with impatient rockers, he revealed a sharp intelligence galvanized by a sense of moral outrage.
Costello hasn't lost his anger, as he proved with fast, taunting versions of "Shabby Doll" and "Secondary Modern." He is no longer consumed by it, however, and he exposed a new intimacy and vulnerability on several ballads that highlighted the show. He put aside his guitar on "Kid About It" to carefully shape his plea that love be taken seriously. Though he never lost his dignity, he sounded as if he were on the brink of desperation. On "Watch Your Step," he whispered the early verses as if offering advice in confidence. On "Clowntime Is Over," the Attractions, his longtime trio, played a restrained jazz backing as Costello purposefully picked his pauses and inflections. "Shipbuilding," his masterful indictment of the Falklands war, was so perfectly understated that it cut all the deeper.
Costello has never had a great natural voice, but he has become a smart singer. On "Kid About It," he restated the chorus over and over, each time rethreading it through the chord progression. On "White Lies," he maintained a delicious charge of controlled tension that he never lost. He built "Man Out of Time" from a personal confession to the riveting shout of the climax.
Costello and the Attractions were joined by the four-man TKO Horns from his new album on the evening's first six and last 11 songs. The horns took over the primary melody in the songs, freeing keyboardist Steve Nieve and bassist Bruce Thomas to play variations and counterpoints on the themes.