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Review of North, and re-issues of Punch The Clock, Get Happy!! and Trust
The Word, 2003-10-01
- Gareth James


The Word , October `03.

"The odds on hearing Elvis Costello singing "I want to kiss you in a rush, and whisper things to make you blush" were never very high. It is not what you would
expect of him. Which is probably why he's gone and done it. He's not keen on being predictable. His last album, released on a hip-hop label, was a College Chart Number 1 in America. Other recent work included the music for a ballet production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and recording the old Chaplin tune Smile for a Japanese detective show. The man simply, and charmingly, cannot be pigeonholed. Speaking in WORD some months back, Costello told how he felt his last release, When I Was Cruel, “didn’t have a tremendous amount of heart” to it. By contrast his new album wears its heart ever so firmly on its sleeve.

Those of us willing to invest in Costello’s eclecticism have long since given up trying to guess what will be heard after pressing play on each new release. Pooling classical and jazz influences, North plots an emotional journey that one would be churlish to imagine does not begin with his split from Cait O’Riordan in the autumn of last year. A sparse, sombre tone pervades the initial tracks and you can’t help but wonder if loss and pain will loom like storm clouds over the entire album.

The mood lightens as the album progresses with a certain air of chronological autobiography. On Still, The Brodsky Quartet are finally reunited with Costello, a decade on from the glorious Juliet Letters, and their appearance seems to bring about a more engaging performance style that propels the record to its conclusion. Let Me Tell You About Her is virtually a conventional love song, one of Costello’s first. You can almost picture him gliding over the keys in the corner of a smoky jazz bar, while the muted trumpet finale surely begs for a black and white film for it to soundtrack. It's gorgeous, with the vocal making full use of Costello's baritone while the lyrics are immensely heartfelt if unexpected, but utterly forgivable, a tad clumsy.

North comes to its close with I'm In The Mood Again, perhaps reflecting our hero’s journey towards new-found happiness with Diana Krall. The melody mirrors the lighter mood that has replaced the foreboding initial textures, and contentment is as prominent as it can be on an album bearing the legend ‘Elvis Costello’. In the sleeve notes of the re-mastered Punch The Clock Costello describes much of his oeuvre as “allergic to happy ending”, but North appears more than willing to buck such a trend.

As well as Punch The Clock, Get Happy!! and Trust have also just re-emerged as part of the ongoing reissue programme. It’s hard to pick fault with the whole
collection let alone these three, which between them contain over seventy bonus tracks; a live version of High Fidelity aping the style of Bowie’s Station To Station and practically the entire Punch The Clock album in its uncluttered demo form amongst the highlights.

Costello’s accompanying essays are almost worth the admission fee alone, with recollections that include mistakenly adding echo to Chet Baker’s trumpet part on Shipbuilding and the magical imagery conjured by the phrase “a rather lifeless lesbian discotheque”, which was apparently the only nearby entertainment during the recording of GH!!. The re-mastered sound is warm and forgiving, even with parts of Punch The Clock, and the bonus discs are genuine delights in every instance.

It's hard to imagine North selling as well as these earlier albums did, and I can't imagine Costello is that bothered. This is another of those albums he's wanted to make, another expression of his desire to try everything and a record that will no doubt incite as much criticism from some as it will praise from others. It's not a classic, but it's a lovingly crafted record that you will keep returning to, slowly allowing its subtle charms to seep in.

Speaking to the BBC a few years ago, Elvis said: “if you don’t like this one, maybe you’ll like the next one. They’re not all a series of red buses that are all the same”. Listening to the shift from When I Was Cruel to North, quite what sort of buses the record companies will be repackaging 20 years from now, God only knows.

Gareth James.


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