The Skinny: A career in hindsight

Daily Herald: Court Mann: April 18th 2016.

Was Elvis Costello precise in his messiness, or messy in his precision?

I’ve been asking myself that question since Tuesday night, when I saw Costello headline Kingsbury Hall. The legendary singer-songwriter played for two hours or so that night. It was a long and winding setlist, full of stories, jokes and deconstructed versions of songs both famous and obscure. Costello is 61 years old now — and his performance style has always been purposely gritty — but even then, I was surprised by how unkempt it all was.

It was a curious performance. I’m still trying to make sense of it, honestly.

Costello is no stranger to gruffness. It’s been an inseparable part of his live persona, and part of his performance charm. His voice is forceful, his guitar playing brutish at times. And yet, from melodies to lyrics to chord structures, his songs are deeply sophisticated and nuanced. That dichotomy can be thrilling.

In a live setting, though, with Costello playing solo as he did Tuesday night, the rough and the refined can sometimes work at cross purposes — the rough swallowing the refined.

That happened a few times Tuesday night. But it might have been intended. This musical deconstruction was a theme of sorts. Old photos, illustrations and videos were projected onto a screen as Costello played and addressed the crowd. He recently released a memoir, and the show felt like its musical manifestation — reflective, conflicted, exhaustive; an acknowledgement that the current interpretation of the past is sometimes quite different from the actual past itself.

This felt most thrilling when Costello played “Watching The Detectives,” a hit from his 1977 debut, “My Aim Is True.” On the number he recorded and looped different guitar parts onstage, queuing the loops at various intervals, then silencing them as he played and sang. That makeshift symphony grew louder and more dissonant as he added more guitar parts. It climaxed in a cacophony of enchantingly obtuse noise. His early work possesses such an acute sense of anger. This iteration of “Watching The Detectives” was just as angry, but it was the anger of age, not the absence of it.

Costello wasn’t attempting a perfect performance on Tuesday. He wanted it to be interesting. Boy, was it.