|The Elvis Costello
Interview about North
Jazz and love on Costello's mind
North, a quiet jazz album that turns on affairs of the heart, is the latest work from the versatile Elvis Costello.
After recording rock and country, soul and pop, punk and classical over the course of a dizzying 25-year career, it's a wonder Elvis Costello could find a musical style he hasn't delved into before.
Yet here comes "North," a quiet album of jazz-inflected ballads that marry some of Costello's most heartfelt, direct lyrics with harmonically complex music.
It's a song cycle about falling out of love, then in again — a disc to take you from late at night into the dawn. It may reflect his own life; he recently split with his wife and became engaged to singer Diana Krall. Or it may not; Costello dislikes talking about it.
Costello, a favorite of David Letterman's, talked about his music backstage while awaiting an appearance on the "Late Show."
Costello: Some records you accumulate songs over a period of time. With this, I was just writing songs that came to me and demanded my attention. The odd thing about this record is it was so different from the music I was currently playing. I was on the road with the Impostors doing a rock 'n' roll show, doing the "When I Was Cruel" songs. I came off the stage and sometimes found a piano in the dress room or had an electronic keyboard in my hotel room.
Q: It's inevitable that many people will listen to this and believe you're writing about your own romantic life. To what extent is that true?
Costello: I know that all the ideas of the songs are grounded in reality, or my view of it. But they're not a literal recitation of life. That would be tedious. There are details on these things, there are no distortions or evasions (but) I don't think it does any good or makes the record sound any better to know if it's my life or not. It's as good as the record is, which I think is very good. Somebody on the other side of the world that doesn't have such a morbid fascination with people's lives who happen to be musicians will hear the record and it will either move them or it won't.
Q: What I took from this album, ultimately, is the renewing and rejuvenating power of life. Is that a feeling you hope listeners take with them?
Costello: I think it's a very positive record. It begins in a very
bleak mood and fairly rapidly it changes from that. The first half of
the record is more doleful and full of bewilderment and that is all
about love coming to you, and it not being necessarily easy for you
to accept or even to recognize it. There are moments of humor, even
in the first couple of
Q: Is it a midlife crisis record?
Costello: I don't think it's a midlife crisis record. Not at all. That ain't a crisis, it's a cause for celebration.
Q: Does your early work make it difficult for some fans to accept or expect songs that are so open-hearted?
Costello: I don't think so. There are other songs that are very specific
and very clear and unadorned with the devices for which I'm sometimes
said to be known. I don't deny that those songs are there. But most
of the songs on "King of America" have a plainness of language.
"I Want You" is not exactly a disguised song; it's expressing
a very different kind of emotion. I have had a ballad in the center
of my repertoire from the start — the best known song from my
early years is a ballad. I got fascinated with words and playing games
and disguising things, and I've written some really good songs that
are not about
Q: This is the second time in your career that the album is titled after a song that didn't make the album. What's up with that?
Costello: Three times. "Imperial Bedroom." "Almost Blue." These are titles that worked in my imagination at the same time. In the case of this, I thought of these songs as being north as a direction and a general sense of an optimistic point of view, and there happens to be a song about north as a geographical direction. It's a kind of comic song.
I had a feeling that its charm might wear off on repeated listenings.
I thought it was a good song to play in concert and be heard in isolation. Given the relative intensity of the other songs on the record, I thought it would dilute the record to put the song in there.