A long time ago – it seems like a lifetime – Elvis Costello glared out at the listener from the cover of This Year's Model as the voice emanating from the speaker snarled words of revenge and guilt: "Don't say you love me when it's just a rumor / Don't say a word if there is any doubt / Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor / You've got to cut it out..."
Oh, how the times have changed.
Those same eyes now squint through the familiar black horn-rimmed spectacles on the moody gray cover of North, Costello's latest release on the classical Deutsche Grammophon label (which released For The Stars, Elvis's 2001 collaboration with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter). Instead of revenge and guilt, the voice wafting from the stereo sings of love and loss: "Some things are too personal / Too intimate to spill / And gentlemen don't speak of them / And this one never will..."
Yes, times certainly have changed.
Of course, Elvis Costello (nee Declan Patrick MacManus) has long since proven that he is far more than the "angry young man" who stormed across the Atlantic in the mid-seventies, declaring how his "aim [was] true." Over the years, Costello has experimented with rock, pop, country, R&B, blues, and (of course) jazz. After all, Costello is the son of British trumpeter and vocalist Ross MacManus (of the Joe Loss Orchestra – England's answer to Glenn Miller). Early in his career, Costello recorded a version of Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine." 1982's Imperial Bedroom included the Chet Baker pastiche "Almost Blue," while 1986's King of America featured bass legend Ray Brown on the torchy "The Poisoned Rose." Baker himself recorded "Almost Blue," and plays trumpet on Costello's 1983 antiwar ballad "Shipbuilding."
Although released on a classical label, North is thus far the closest Costello has come to releasing a "jazz album." The music recalls Gil Evans' grand arrangements on albums like Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. It is a moody meditation on the failure of one relationship (not surprising, since the album follows the recent breakup of Costello's marriage to former Pogues bassist Cait O'Riorden) and the flowering of new romance (again, not surprising considering that this album follows Costello's much publicized engagement to jazz chanteuse Diana Krall). It is at once a parting kiss and a valentine to his new love, all wrapped in tissue paper with the cut ends still wet and a bit of baby's breath for good measure. This certainly represents the largest group Costello has ever led. In addition to Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve (who seems to prove his worth on each new release), North features a proverbial cast of thousands, including a full string section, brass and woodwinds. All of the writing, and most of the arranging, is by Costello himself, and it is impressive. Costello certainly learned a lot hanging out with Burt Bacharach. The strings sweep majestically across the opening cut, "You Left Me in the Dark." The brasses and woodwinds, which include jazz trombonist Conrad Herwig and trumpeter Lew Soloff, are measured and stately. Lee Konitz solos on "Someone Took the Words Away," and the effect is lovely. The whole album seems to move as though underwater, slowly but gracefully.
Costello is in excellent voice. The story goes that Costello learned to sing while recording The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet (who make a dramatic appearance on this album with "Still"); since then Costello has divided his albums between his old "sneering" voice and his new "proper singing" voice. This is a "proper singing" album from start to finish, and it's impressive how well Costello pulls it off.
There are some complaints, however. All of the songs are in the same (or at least similar) tempo, which makes everything blend together on the first few listenings. If the listener is not grabbed right away, he or she might not make the effort to really inhabit this album and discover its merits. Also, Costello's lyrics are a bit wordy. At times he seems bent on stuffing as many syllables as possible into a line. One wishes that he had let some of the jazz musicians solo more, relying less on written passages. The album definitely seems a tad grandiose (although it is not nearly as repellant as Billy Joel and Paul McCartney's inexorable forays into "classical" music), giving Costello the look of a man still unsure if he belongs in such august company. And while the album is long on beauty and lyrical cleverness, it is short on one thing: fun. It would have been nice had Costello varied the mood a little. It would have drawn attention to the loveliness of these melodies, without driving the whole concept into the ground.
These are minor quibbles, of course. On the whole, North is a strong effort. Costello continues to grow as a musician, and follows his interests wherever they might lead. More power to him, I say. For Costello fans, North is definitely worth the trip.