Imagine being placed at a table in a dark parlor. Gusts of smoke drift toward stage lights that hang over a sullen figure cloaked in black, seated on what seems more like a throne than a bench at the foot of his piano. The looming glow reveals his silhouetted face and sunken eyes. As he unfolds the first song of a ballad, it becomes clear that Elvis Costello is not playing to entertain, but rather to evoke melancholy. He strikes the keys with emphatic force, but remains painfully composed.
The first page of the leaflet for Costello's new album North features a portrait of the musician: a childish, rather goofy man with thick-rimmed black glasses, wearing a stem expression all too reminiscent of a class clown ordered to act serious. His eyes staring at the viewer seem to say, "Will they like the new me?" As the ballad moves on from song to song a lack of change in both subject matter and tone becomes apparent.
Everyone gets the picture, Elvis, you lost the woman you loved, get over it. Where's the jazzy, rockin' rhythm devil gone?
How can an artist so shamelessly switch from energetic rock and roll to a mournful sound? In Costello's previous album When I Was Cruel, he oohs and ahhs listeners with upbeat melodies and boisterous delivery.
North proves to be a recorded monument to Elvis Costello's personal life. His intimacy with the microphone speaks of a real loss in his life off the stage. North brings to mind the artist Beck, whose genre of funkelectronic experimentation changed in the space of a heartbeat to a woeful folk sound with his latest album Sea Change. Beck's album was driven by the discovery that his beloved girlfriend had been unfaithful, and Costello delivers similar feelings of open-hearted sadness and regret to his listeners.
Graceful string and horn arrangements complement piano ballads that in their delicacy enforce Costello's mission without demanding anything from the listener. "I wanted to go for sounds that might be 20 feet away from you," said Costello in an interview with Rolling Stone. "Everything happens in the foreground in pop records, trying to knock your eyes out."
After first listening to North, it was, quite plainly, boring. After a second listen, certain elements of complex instrumentation and poetic lyrical content stood out and although the uniformity of sound was frustrating, the ballad became an important story that had been previously ignored.
While the instrumentation never deviates throughout the album, the lyrical story is quite dynamic. Elvis starts with hopeless feelings of abandonment in "You Left Me in the Dark" early in the album, but ends with an uplifted spirit, as witnessed in the last song "I'm in the Mood Again."
What North lacks in tonal and melodic change is made up for with its transition in mood. But most importantly, it takes guts to change a musical style, and Costello makes a noble effort.