Fans of Elvis Costello are in for a tough year. The durable singer/songwriter plans to follow his dull new album North (Deutsche Grammophon) with a late 2004 release of orchestral pieces he wrote for an Italian production of the ballet A Midsummer Night's Dream and recorded with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. This is bad news for both lovers of Costello's sharp pop music and of orchestras.
On North Costello can't make a 14-piece band sound more interesting than a pallbearer's suit, subduing the normally vivid colors of horns, reeds, woodwinds, and vibraphone into a charcoal background for his limpid crooning. The best that can be said for this album — which is the first complete botch-up of Costello's 27-year career and comfortably bears the adjectives "pretentious" and "contemptible" — is that when Costello is singing at his most artful on its 11 numbing numbers, he manages a fair imitation of a good jazz singer's ability to mimic the phrasing of a trumpet, albeit without much range or flexibility. The album's peak comes when Lew Soloff nearly saves the maudlin love song "Let Me Tell You About Her" with a lovely flugelhorn solo that sidesteps the dead-ass delivery and clichés of Costello's lyrics, which are full of rolling eyes, gentlemen not speaking of intimacies, and other stuff that 1930s parlor romances are made of.
Costello has long been an experimenter — a masterful pop craftsman who, after establishing himself as one of the best voices of '80s rock, sought inspiration by first exploring country music and then analyzing the architecture of the great American songbook as designed by George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. The latter resulted in his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, 1998's Painted From Memory (Mercury). He's also examined classical music as a route for growth, collaborating with the Brodsky Quartet on the 1993 song cycle The Juliet Letters (Warner Bros.) and with opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter in a program of standards and originals on For The Stars (DG, 2001). With North, Costello seems to be searching for a middle ground where his cocktail jazz muse might relax with its classically trained sister. Instead, he's turned both into cold, lifeless harpies.
The tunes on North also compose a cycle that begins with the heartbreak of a lost love and ends with the kindling of a new romance. It seems inspired by Costello's break-up with his wife, ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan, and the relationship he's taken up with the jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall. Costello has said that the opening number, "You Left Me in the Dark," is not about a divorce but about bereavement. Either way, it's given a supper-club treatment that seems like satire, with Costello's voice and Steve Nieve's piano playing cutesy cat-and-mouse games and the verses drowning in self-pity.
By omitting hooks and choruses, Costello telegraphs the notion that this group of songs is art, not pop. But decent art is never as inexplicably colorless or deadpan as North, which he would know if he checked his creative compass. Perhaps Costello has fallen in love with the smell of his own farts and expects us to relish them, too. Or at least forgotten what he's learned from listening to the arrangements of Duke Ellington and Nelson Riddle and found a soft spot in his heart for Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis that he's determined to share. Even the charts for the songs on which Costello is accompanied only by Nieve's piano are drab, with little room for melodies save for those in Costello's vocal performances. It's as if he wants nothing to distract from his whining on the disc's first half, or his cautious optimism in the second. As a listener, stuck in the thick of this mess, one prays for sonic distractions — really, just interesting passages — that never come.