|The Elvis Costello
Review of North, and re-issues of Punch The Clock, Get Happy!!
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
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
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.