The Portland Mercury: Morgan Troper: 10th July 2015.
People seem to forget that young Elvis Costello was an absolutely terrifying performer. His media reputation as rock ’n' roll’s “angry young man” was not unwarranted—the Attractions’ 1978 appearance on German TV show Rockaplast is a perfect document of that period of Costello’s career. Musically, he combined Paul McCartney’s cherubic penchant for melody with a wry, hyper-literate pessimism reminiscent of Randy Newman or Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan; ideologically, he was everything punk should be. In other words, he was perfect.
In the span of 35 years, Costello’s produced a whopping 24 albums, and very few of them could accurately be classified as “punk” (although most of them are terrific, anyway), but Costello never really lost that verve, even if he isn’t nearly as combustible as he was when he, say, appeared on SNL in 1977. As I was walking out of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall after Costello's Portland show on Wednesday night, I heard someone behind me say that it was “like seeing the Who in their heyday,” and they weren’t wrong—just in terms of sheer endurance Costello outclasses every other artist his age, save maybe Springsteen. And sure, he does some cheesy rock-star shit sometimes—like wear a fedora in earnest and make the guitar “O-face”—but even these minor transgressions come off as largely endearing in a “c’mon, dad!” sort of way.
On the recording front, it’s been a good half-decade for Costello—2010 saw the release of Americana time capsule National Ransom and 2013 gave us Wise Up Ghost, an unlikely collaboration with the Roots which recalled Costello’s underrated early '00s masterpiece When I Was Cruel. Unlike Paul Simon or Neil Young (or shit, Death Cab for Cutie), there’s no shame in celebrating Costello’s newer material—while it’s unlikely he’ll ever produce a complete body of work on par with Armed Forces or Imperial Bedroom, songs like Wise Up Ghost opener “Walk Us Uptown” rank among the songwriter’s best work.
With that said, Wednesday night's set consisted of mainly classics—hits, and songs that should have been hits. The “unbeatable trilogy” of My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces were amply represented in the set, which was peppered with Costello’s more recognizable, latter-era hits like Trust’s “Clubland” and Punch the Clock’s “Shipbuilding” and “Everyday I Write the Book”. While (naturally) not as eclectic as his Portland stop in 2012 on the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour, it was nonetheless a memorable, varied set—the seemingly never-ending final encore even included a rare piano and voice rendition of This Year’s Model B-side “Talking in the Dark”, continuing a long-standing tradition Costello and keyboardist Steve Nieve have of spontaneously stripping down full-band Attractions songs in a live setting (see: the baroque-pop interpretation of “Accidents Will Happen” on Live at Hollywood High).
Sitting directly in front of me was a kid who couldn’t have been older than 15. He was singing along to everything: all three million syllables in “Beyond Belief,” every word to Momofuku deep cut “Flutter and Wow”—all of it. He had glasses and shaggy hair and reminded me of myself at his age (a 15-year-old who loved Elvis Costello). It probably moved me more than the actual set did; it felt like a telepathic secret handshake. I didn’t really understand “Man Out of Time” until I was 20 and started sabotaging relationships for the sake of being able to relate to pop music, but I connected with it on some essential level way before then. There’s a timeless quality to Costello’s music that some people—regardless of their age—just get. (And yes, those people are probably nerds, but that’s hardly a put-down—it’s 2015.) So here’s to you, kid. You’ve got a lot to look forward to.