Today, the angry young Elvis Costello seems hard to imagine.
The guy who upset Lorne Michaels by abruptly switching songs on “Saturday Night Live” in 1977 and provoked a bar fight in 1979 that earned him a punch in the face from Bonnie Bramlett might as well be another person.
Time has been kind to his reputation, and his continued lyrical precision has left him almost revered.
“There’s no writer other than Bob Dylan that has a catalog of songs as expansive as Costello’s,” a writer said after one of the first stops on Costello’s current “Detour” tour, which will bring him to the Civic Theatre on Thursday.
This tour presents Costello on his own, accompanying himself on guitar and piano. His younger self has briefly emerged in many of his solo shows when he plays a lengthy version of “Watching the Detectives,” looping guitar parts to create an aggressive, punky racket, but another staple of his shows has been the mournful piano ballad “Shipbuilding,” which he wrote in response to the Falklands War in 1982.
The stripped-down presentation has allowed him to revisit the breadth of his career, even some of the phases he’s less fond of.
For example, in his liner notes for the reissue of 1984’s “Goodbye Cruel World,” Costello wrote, “Congratulations! You’ve just purchased our worst album.” The record brought to a definitive end an eight-album hot streak, but that hasn’t prevented him from revisiting “Love Field,” one of its better songs.
Costello has since said his angry years were partly a product of drinking and drugs, which prompted him and his hyped-up band to plow through some of his songs’ subtleties.
On his solo tours, he addresses the rough treatment he gave his compositions in years gone by, and like Dylan, re-examines his work for new meanings. He plays the R&B cover “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” that he recorded for 1980’s “Get Happy!!” as a ballad and “Lip Service” from “This Year’s Model” as a country song.
The breadth and depth of Costello’s interests was part of his appeal from early on. While his first albums surged with the energy of the moment, he also signaled his interests in R&B and country.
Later, he’d show a more genuine appreciation of both forms, going so far as to partner with Allen Toussaint on Toussaint’s own extensive catalogue of songs with 2006’s “The River in Reverse.”
When Costello most recently played Jazz Fest in 2010, his country-inflected set included The Rolling Stones’ “Happy,” The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” and George Jones’ “The Race is On.”
Costello has recorded with artists as different as Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, The Brodsky Quartet, T Bone Burnett, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Roots.
Last year, he revisited Dylan’s vault of unrecorded lyrical scraps to compose and record “Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes” with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and others.
Costello’s work with Dylan’s words seems appropriate, as his own intricate, clever wordplay similarly inspired a generation of young rock singers to write dense, acerbic lyrics.
The more intimate solo shows make the words easier to appreciate.
Those lyrics made Costello the punk-era favorite of many listeners who otherwise didn’t care for punk, and he has acknowledged he was punk only by association and attitude. His roots were more in the early ’70s British pub rock scene, a community that loved New Orleans’ Lee Dorsey and Toussaint.
The angry young Costello was partly a fabrication of his manager/label head but also of Costello caught up in the confrontational, self-important spirit of the moment.
Today, he’s grayer, thicker, and his wiry, nervous energy has been replaced a raconteur’s geniality.
Today, he’d likely punch his younger self too, but the feeling would be mutual. The young Costello would be horrified to learn that he’d grown to be the sort of mature artist that wouldn’t get off the stage and make room for the next generation, and he’d give the mature Costello the finger.