Whenever Elvis Costello grows secure in a style, he sets it aside and seeks out another one, fighting his own reflexes to a draw.
His new album “North,” is his latest battle with himself. Last year he reunited with most of his crafty late-1970s band to rock out on “When I Was Cruel”; now he has veered to the opposite extreme, singing slow, sustained ballads.
The album has a story line about an old romance collapsing and a new one beginning. The lyrics on this album replace Costello’s usual rush of images and wordplay with brief, emotionally direct verses: “Maybe this is the love song that I refused to/Write her when I loved her like I used to.”
Although the words aspire to transparency, the music grows complex. He sounds as if he had been studying Cole Porter, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Stephen Sondheim, Chopin and Schubert.
His new tunes rarely go very far without taking a leap to tan unlikely note. They also use harmonic nuances to paint the lyrics, with rising or falling chords to match mood shifts.
Costello hasn’t made his songs easy on himself. He’s at the limits of his vocal instrument in the new ones, trying to use the strain in his voice to suggest yearning. Another singer might be more comfortable with this music. But Costello would clearly rather find comfort in romance than in song-writing.