Even from an initial glance at the case, something seems entirely different about Elvis Costello's new album North. The cover art resembles something more like Dave Matthews Band's Everyday than the usual Costello eclecticism; the pop art of Get Happy, the cubism of Imperial Bedroom or the splatter art of Armed Forces. But whatever, it's just a cover. And looking inside, from the back of lyrics sleeve, that kooky infamous half-grin that is Costello is staring out at the potential listener. This is a good sign, right?
Sadly, no. This is the last trace of typical Costello to be found anywhere in the album or the package. Those who are looking for his quintessential punky pop tunes here should give up now.
Instead, North is like a sentimental cabaret album, more in the vein of his 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach than anything else he has done. Essentially it is a classical pop album that follows a cycle of love songs, ending appropriately with a song entitled "I'm In The Mood Again," bringing us right back to the beginning.
They say that love can make you do silly things, and this seems to hold true for Costello this time around. One doesn't have to know that he's engaged to Diana Krall to realize he's in love — it is all too evident on the album. Every song is a love song, and it becomes a little overwhelming.
Of course, Costello love songs are not usually a bad thing, but the love songs that inhabit North lack the lyrical intelligence and ingenuity of his past works. Not a single one measures up to the beautiful classic "Alison" or even to the funky pop and fun of the recent "Spooky Girlfriend." The lyrics seem to fall flat or lack originality, which is an odd phenomenon for Costello songs, as he usually imbues them with a deep lyrical complexity, even in the most popish songs like "Oliver's Army."
In many ways, North is strangely reminiscent of Yo La Tengo's Summer Sun, a relative flop which was released in April of this year. Summer Sun was a collection of mostly quiet, slightly melancholy songs that often dragged on a little longer than they should have. The real problem with it, though, was that it was all the same kind of song, and there was no typical Yo La Tengo pop song in the vein of "Cherry Chapstick" or "Tom Courtenay" to counter-balance the calm ballads that overpopulated the album.
North suffers from the same sad disease. It's full of too many classic pop love songs that all sound relatively similar, with no track that sounds like vintage Costello to balance it all out. In light of following last year's When I Was Cruel, North just seems like an even bigger disappointment.
But, that being said, just like "Summer Sun," North isn't an entirely bad album. Costello arranged and conducted most of the songs, and, the majority of the time, he did well. The balance of the piano and the minimal snare drum in the first two tracks is subtly pleasing. Additionally, Lee Konitz's alto sax solo on the end of "When Did I Stop Dreaming?" as well as the staccato lyrics and beat in the middle, add jazz to what would otherwise be a so-so song.
The strength in "North," though, lies somewhere in the middle of the album. The flitting piano melody on "You Turned To Me" is enjoyable, but "When It Sings" and "Still" are perhaps the best tracks on the album. "When It Sings" is a bittersweet, but not saccharine, love song with the catchiest and most clever lyrics on the album. And although "Still" isn't as lyrically strong as its predecessor, it is filled with refreshing, light piano rock.
For the first part of the album, the lyrics are tolerable, but nothing special either. The end of the album is where it really slips, with relatively boring lyrics and emotion that has become, by this point, blas (particularly in "Let Me Tell You About Her"). Luckily, the last song, "I'm In The Mood Again," is relatively catchy with intelligent lyrics, and it sounds like the jazzy ode to New York that one might find at the beginning of an older Woody Allen flick. But sadly, by this point, one wishes that Costello wasn't in the mood again.
Any Costello fan hoping that at any moment someone will jump in with a guitar, change the course and start rocking will still be waiting by the end of the album. North remains a static procession of similar semi-symphonic ballads, to the disappointment of many. It's not entirely a bad album, but it's nothing true Costello fans will get happy about.