It's been years since Elvis Costello was an angry young man. According to his calculations, relayed over a cellphone from the back of a car in London, one would be hard-pressed to find a caustic pun in anything he's written during the last decade — certainly not the score to a dance production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, nor a work for countertenor and viol ensemble, nor even his lush pop collaboration with Burt Bacharach.
Still, Costello will always be king of the cutting barb. He'll forever be bristling with guilt and pumped for revenge, his real feelings brilliantly disguised by a barrage of acerbic wordplay and clever chord changes. Costello understands that in the annals of rock he will go down as the stiff misanthropic dweeb, dumped by Alison and sneering.
"I've written lots of bitter, accusatory songs," says Costello, a gracious and erudite conversationalist. "But there's a curious anomaly to me being thought of as a rock 'n' roll singer. My main thing has always been to sing ballads and write in the ballad form. I don't equate emotion with histrionics, or even a raised voice. That's a terrifying sound, but there's a lot to be said for the tender word and the whispered remark."
Costello's fascination with the classic pop songcraft of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart reaches back to 1982, the year he turned 27, when Costello released Imperial Bedroom. Track 6 was a melancholy affair called "Almost Blue," a song that's become a jazz-pop vocal standard covered by Chet Baker, Jimmy Scott, and most recently Costello's fiancee, the Canadian singer Diana Krall. Costello began to carve a career as one of the most eclectic and gifted songwriters of his era — going country one year, burrowing into soul the next, flirting with jazz, and immersing himself in classical music.
"He's a risk taker. He certainly took a chance making a record with me," says Bacharach. "The guy simply won't be bound to one kind of music, nor should he be. He's always investigating because he can."
It's the tender words and whispered remarks that Costello returns to with astonishing purity on his new album, North, to be released on Tuesday. It's a cycle of slow, intense songs that begins with "You Left Me in the Dark" and closes with "I'm in the Mood Again"; what happens in between chronicles with uncharacteristic directness the end of Costello's 16-year marriage to musician Cait O'Riordan of the Pogues and the beginning of his infatuation with Krall. Costello is wary of attaching too much autobiographical weight to the collection. He's fiercely protective of his ex-wife's privacy, and sensitive to the perils of being half of a musical power couple.
At the same time Costello knows how silly it would sound to deny it.
"I'm reluctant to so closely identify these songs with life, because life is quite a bit more complicated," he says. "I know I sound pedantic and evasive. The songs clearly have a relationship to an emotional transition I've experienced, but my mission is to move beyond the initial inspiration to expression and craft. Describing the moment when you picked the purple woolen thread off your dress doesn't mean anything to anyone else. I offer these songs to other people with no irony, no escape clauses, to relate to their own lives. Otherwise I'm talking to myself."
The songs tumbled out with a force and speed that Costello found upsetting. It was, he says, like being tapped insistently on the shoulder at random times of day and night. Six of the 12 ballads were composed while he was on the road with the Imposters last year, touring in support of 2002's searing When I Was Cruel and playing what Costello describes as some of the most ferocious shows of his life — the oddly raucous bed in which these intimate ballads bloomed.
When he returned early this year to New York — one of the places Costello spends enough time to consider a sort of home, along with Ireland (his base for 13 years), London (where Costello's father and son reside), and Canada (Krall's home) — he immediately holed up in an old studio on the top of the Steinway Building.
Orchestrations came to Costello almost simultaneously while laying down demo recordings. Initially unaware that he was composing a song cycle, Costello began to perceive "an accumulation of feeling," he says, noticed "a sense of connection," and wrote six more songs that would complete a picture of a man moving from darkness into light.
Lyrically and sonically, North follows an upward trajectory, growing sweeter and headier as it goes. "You know the expression something's 'gone south'? It's the opposite of that. It's also a place I go, the northern part of the North American continent," Costello says of the album's title. North reunites the singer-songwriter with the Brodsky Quartet for "Still," the album's winsome centerpiece; on the rest of the album longtime pianist Steve Nieve, drummer Peter Erskine, and double bassist Mike Formanek form a hushed, dusky rhythm section accompanied by a horn nonet and 28-piece string section arranged and conducted by Costello.
There are less than 12 bars of electric guitar on the record, and there's no better way to get at the aesthetic of North than to scroll through the Sinatra-esque adjectives Costello conjures to talk about his lover. She's a marvelous girl, sensational, indescribable. The songs' savvy internal rhymes, too, smack of old-school style and first-class romance, and the elegant musical phrasings owe a debt to jazz, musical theater, classical music, and vintage pop. Imagine Sondheim with the Beatles in his blood, sung almost entirely in Costello's broken, burnished baritone and brandished with a startled heart.
Just be careful not to confuse a string section for sentimental embellishment.
"If anybody attaches 'lush' to the record, they're ignorant or a liar," warns Costello.
Indeed, North is dramatic and emotional, but Costello has mastered the fine art of letting the spaces speak. Silence is color here, and the music is carefully sketched in pencil lines and pointed strokes. Costello doesn't have a beautiful voice, and his throaty quiver skewers these delicate love songs with a flawed humanity that's either captivating or annoying, depending on your musical standards. On every level, they're the most revealing songs he has ever sung. But Costello doesn't care to be called courageous.
"Courage is an innocent man facing a firing squad," he says. "I've stripped a lot away here. But it wasn't hard because that's what I was called upon to do by the initial inspiration. I wanted to speak clearly."
Neither is he terrifically concerned about how people will receive North.
"I'm not trying to join the dots and be one of the most successful artists of all time," Costello says. "An audience is a group of individuals with different points of view. People my age who loved This Year's Model may understand the transitions in these songs very well. People who want to hear music that sounds like what I used to do have become exasperated and left the room. I figure they're served by somebody else. Others have discovered me through the songs with [opera singer] Anne Sofie von Otter. There's a revolving door. People go out and come in."
The angry young man, now 48, speaks with a clarity available only to those who are comfortable in the spaces between black and white. Even these songs, so candid and unironic, are layered with dubious messages. Is "When Did I Stop Dreaming" about waking up to reality or the end of believing in something? Does "Can You Be True" ask if a lover is real or if she can be faithful?
"They're inescapable conclusions with more than one meaning," says Costello. "The dreadful, wonderful transitions occur simultaneously when there's a changing in the heart. When people part it can be crushing, but so long as we're alive there's the possibility of another happiness. And I suppose that's why the record is called North as opposed to Down in the Hole."