Since some other smart-aleck will undoubtably make this remark, let me be the first: Elvis prematurely used up the title When I Was Cruel. Because if anything resembles cruelty, it's this ambitious yet ultimately frustrating effort.
Costello, who has tackled chamber music, Broadway ballads, Purcellian odes and other musical exotica, delves once more into the Great Beyond, forgoing rock for another artistic diversion. With its release on the storied classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, North ostensibly aims to reinvent pop music as lieder (classical-style art songs). A song cycle, along the lines of Schubertian masterpieces like Die Winterreise, North traverses an emotional journey: the first half contemplates the end of the affair, while the rest examines the stirrings of new love.
Or as Elvis cryptically hints on the press notes: "The record begins with a song called 'You Left Me in the Dark' and ends with 'I'm in the Mood Again.' You have to listen to what goes on in between to find out why." As for the title North, Mr. Inscrutable offers: "That's where I'm headed."
Unfortunately, on a cursory listen, North sounds like a 50-minute dirge, destined to alienate all but his hardcore fans. But if you probe beneath the gloomy introspection, you'll find exquisite arrangements for ensembles ranging from a trio to an 48-piece orchestra, with ever-tasteful and sensitive vocals from Costello in his best crooner mode. It's all austerely gorgeous but ultimately hollow, evoking yet another Costello title, All This Useless Beauty.