Accompanied only by longtime collaborator/pianist Steve Nieve, Elvis Costello took to the stage at New York's Town Hall last night (Sept. 22) to introduce North. The new album of ballads, in stores today via Deutsche Grammophon, is a departure from the wry, often bitter material for which the artist is so well known, and he wisely couched the material within selections spanning his career.
Costello performed nearly the whole of the new album, plus the title track (only available to buyers via free download) throughout the more than two-hour exhibition to an overly eager audience in the pristine theater. And while sparse arrangements of such beloved songs as "Accidents Will Happen," "Man Out of Time" and "All the Rage" met the new ballads on a musically even field, differences between old and new were easily notable.
The new material is passionate traditional pop in the vein of George and Ira Gershwin or Costello's one-time collaborator, Burt Bacharach and his songwriting partner, Hal David. The lyrics are direct, devoid of clever-clever wordplay and cheeky humor, instead laying matters of the heart out in the open. And it's mostly a startling success; sophisticated, not syrupy, and seemingly screaming for an ancillary narrative for which to frame it for a long life on Broadway.
Selling it to last night's crowd was easy, although hardcore fans frothing in anticipation of an intimate evening with Costello at times detracted as much from the experience as the occasional ringing cellular phone. Anxious applause broke out as the quietest moments of these unfamiliar and subdued songs were mistaken for the songs' end. Tittering sometimes
spread as some searched for sardonic meaning in words and actions where none was intended.
Nonetheless, the heartbreak of "You Left Me in the Dark" and "You Turned to Me" and the rebirth of "Let Me Tell You About Her" and "I'm in the Mood Again" soared even to the upper reaches of the cozy theater. Costello's investment in the songs and arrangements were obvious as he prefaced some with explanation, stood by the grand piano to enjoy Nieve's playing during "Someone Took the Words Away" and basked in the approval of the faithful.
"It's the first time we've incorporated so many of these works into a full length concert," Costello said, admitting that he and Nieve "appreciate your appreciation."
Aside from the North selections, the crowd was also treated to such gems as "Indoor Fireworks," a mid-tempo version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding" and "God's Comic," as well as a poignant rendition of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" by Costello alone at the piano. Only "45" and "Tart," both from last year's When I Was Cruel (Island), belied the majority of the set with caustic distortion wailing from his acoustic guitar.
Nieve's astounding abilities at the piano aside, the charm of North and its performance lay in Costello's vocal abilities and limitations. Emotional camouflage and lyrical conventions stripped away, the pain of betrayal and loss feels alarmingly real, and by the same token, the fragility of the first steps of finding love again is relived with hesitation and excitement.
As such, fans who have indulged Costello's seemingly constant exploration of music's varied landscapes with an open mind will be rewarded if they follow him North.
Costello & Nieve play Town Hall again on Wednesday (Sept. 24) and will spend October and early November visiting Japan and Europe.
Here is the set list: