Elvis Costello,
(Universal Classics, 2003)

Right from the opening notes of the string section introduction to "You Left Me in the Dark," I was dubious about Elvis Costello's latest album North. As a longtime Costello fan I knew better than to expect a repeat of the aural assault he had unleashed on his vibrant last album When I Was Cruel. But had his relationship with Canadian jazz diva Diana Krall sapped all the raw power from Elvis's songwriting? Was she the reason he'd recorded a quiet jazz album? North certainly has a Krall-like quality, due in no small way to the prominence of piano, the absence of guitar, in the arrangements. And yet as I listened a second and third time to North one thing became particularly clear: Costello's lyrics, which have always been one of the main things that drew me to his music, are well served by the tone of this album.

Another aspect of North that works well is its relative brevity. Its 11 tracks clock in at just over 40 minutes. The fat has been trimmed away leaving a lean, if rather uneventful listening experience. The individual songs are tight, frequently running less than three minutes in length. This restraint, particularly evident on "Still" has a very different effect than was the case on 1980's Get Happy, where a number of the 20 songs packed onto the album felt fragmentary. "Still" stands alone with not a note more than is absolutely necessary for its completion.

Other strong tracks include "Let Me Tell You About Her," which features a haunting flugelhorn solo by Lew Soloff, and the album's closing track "I'm in the Mood Again." But North never really takes wing. I had high hopes for "Can You Be True?" but after an energetic intro exchange between piano and strings the song cools its tempo to fall in line with the rest of the album. It's a shame because this strangely tentative love song in which Elvis sings, "Only time will tell us, I hope it speaks gently if it isn't meant to be. Then again, By then we might not be listening so attentively," had the potential to breathe some contrapuntal life and heat into North.

For me, North fails primarily in the hooks department. Very few of the songs have managed to stay with me. I just don't find the melodies particularly memorable. This fact is underlined by a couple of very melodic instrumental closing passages. The aforementioned flugelhorn solo on "Let Me Tell You About Her" and Lee Konitz's alto sax finale on "Someone Took the Words Away" both manage to outshine their respective songs.

Too frequently Costello makes use of a scat-like vocal mimicry of the piano arrangements. When this technique is used sparingly within a track it can be quite effective at drawing attention to a particular lyric. Such is the case in "Fallen." When Elvis sings, "And I believed that life was wonderful, Right up to the moment when love went wrong," the piano and voice come together for the word "wonderful." They then separate briefly before reconciling for the "moment love went wrong." But in tracks like "You Left Me in the Dark" and particularly "When Did I Stop Dreaming" the trick grows quickly tired; a heavy-handed highlighter spotlighting too many passages.

North is doing well on the jazz charts and perhaps my passion for albums like Imperial Bedroom, All This Useless Beauty and Trust is clouding my perception of this latest Elvis Costello musical detour. Many of his albums have taken a good deal of time to grow on me and yet I suspect North will never number among my favorites.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 29 November 2003

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