North is hardly the usual direction for Elvis Costello.
In sharp contrast to his previous album, 2002's When I Was Cruel, Costello's Deutsche Grammophon set — issued Sept. 23 — eschews rock instrumentation and textures. Costello plays guitar on just one number; the collection's 11 tracks — all original ballads — are dominated by Steve Nieve's piano.
Costello says of his unusually naked new songs, "The first song is taken [by some] as romantic loss, when it's actually about bereavement. The rest of the songs describe a transition from bewilderment into acceptance. That is something I believe people will recognize in degrees... Hopefully, in time, different songs will mean different things to individuals who are listening."
Though intimate in content, the set is embellished on several numbers by arrangements, written by Costello, featuring a string and horn ensemble that sometimes swells to 48 pieces. Soloists include jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, trumpeter Lew Soloff and vibraphonist Bill Ware.
The introspective, bluntly honest and often wounded songs (published by Sideways Songs/BMG Music Publishing) were penned during Costello's 2002 American tour.
He says, "I was seeking out pianos wherever I could — backstage, in dressing rooms, sometimes in the wings of theaters. And then I bought a cheap electronic keyboard so that I could play late at night in a hotel room. I could sketch things out on that. I was also on the road, literally on the road, so I could sit at the hack of the bus with the keyboard and keep working.
"When I finished the tour, a second group of songs appeared, which is the second half of the record. Pretty much, they appear in the sequence in which they were written."
Costello's pop-oriented recordings are released through Island/Def Jam. But Universal Classics chairman Chris Roberts offered Deutsche Grammophon as a haven for North. It will serve as a prelude to the late-2004 release by the label of a Costello orchestral album, recorded with Michael Tilson-Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. That set showcases a ballet score for A Midsummer Night's Dream, commissioned by Italy's Aterballetto dance company.
"[Roberts] gave me the opportunity to make a ballad album," Costello says, "and I had a whole other repertoire of maybe 20 or more songs that I could have recorded. Then the North songs appeared, and the imperative changed."
"We wanted to bridge the gap," Universal Classics senior VP/GM Marc Johnston says. "From [When I Was Cruel] into a symphonic, sort of ballet album was a pretty radical step, so this was the natural journey that Elvis was taking. This album is one step further toward the album next fall."
Johnston says of the marketing effort for the album, "We're experts at reaching an adult consumer. Working with heavy Internet campaigns, publicity-driven projects are what we do."
The CD package for North includes a PIN that allows the consumer to download the title composition, which Costello chose not to include on the album.
Release-week events included a pair of concerts at New York's Town Hall; a live performance at New York's Museum of Television & Radio, simulcast at the museum's Los Angeles location and six major-market Virgin Megastores (and taped for a later airing by the syndicated public-radio series World Café); and appearances on Late Show With David Letterman and A&E Live by Request. The singer was scheduled to tape PBS' Soundstage Sept. 26.
Costello — who is managed by Jill Taylor of By Eleven Management in London and booked by Marsha Vlasic of MVO in New York — begins an extensive tour of Japan and Europe in early October.
"Then hopefully," Costello says, "in the late winter or early spring of next year, we'll do a full-length American tour, if all is well."