Even longtime fans familiar with Elvis Costello's musical adventuring over the last decade — a restless, not always satisfying odyssey that has included collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, Anne Sofie von Otter, Burt Bacharach, and the Mingus Big Band, among others — may be surprised by Costello's new album, North.
The record, due in stores September 23, is unusual on a number of accounts. It can be called a concept album: In 40 economical minutes, Costello whips his listeners through the terminus of one love affair and the blossoming of another. (One might surmise that the subject matter is inspired by the end of the musician's long marriage to Cait O'Riordan and his wooing of his bride-to-be, singer-pianist Diana Krall, but we'll leave that to the tabloids.)
In a sharp volte-face from last year's rock-based set When I Was Cruel, Costello sets down his guitar on 10 of the album's 11 tracks; the songs are dominated by Steve Nieve's subdued piano, and embellished on some numbers by a 48-piece horn and string ensemble. There isn't a rocker to be heard: Ballads comprise the entire album.
Clearly, the sound of North was inspired by Costello's longtime affection for classical American pop songwriting; the album resounds with echoes of such keystone works as Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours and Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin. He attempted to demonstrate his affinity for and facility with that style on his 1998 duo recording with Bacharach, Painted from Memory, but, with the exception of the potent "God Give Me Strength" (actually composed for Allison Anders's 1996 film Grace of My Heart), the partnership produced music that was fussy, mannered, and meandering.
On North, however, everything works brilliantly, thanks to the simplicity and almost unsettling nakedness of the lyrics, and to the warmth, vulnerability, and humanity Costello projects on every song.
Though tenderness is not entirely unknown in his work, Costello will always be best known for his vengeful, bile-spitting tunes about the lovers who have trampled him. North should blow away that conception once and for all. It's a mature and beautifully measured statement about the pain of romantic loss and the glowing possibilities of romantic rebirth.
Emotionally, it's the most grown-up album he's ever made. To that, some might say, "About fucking time."
The record divides fairly neatly down the middle. The first five songs confront the effects of a relationship's end — the staggering moment when one realizes it's all over, the speechlessness and sleeplessness that follow, and the breath-stopping understanding that a season has changed in the soul. The last six tracks examine the unfolding of a new love — its unexpected arrival, the giddiness and almost adolescent exhilaration of it, and the sweetness of surrender.
In an unprecedented gambit, Costello keeps a tight grip on his pen. Especially in recent years, he has seldom been able to resist a baroquely turned phrase, even if it obscured the meaning or dulled the impact of his song. But on North, Costello opts for directness above all else. You may never have expected to hear him sing "I long to hear you whisper my name," but, by God, he does on "Can You Be True?"
Some arrangements are big, even enormous, but they never swamp the proceedings; the focus is always on Costello's ardent voice and Nieve's pitch-perfect keyboards. There are a couple of lovely instrumental contributions: Jazz veteran Lee Konitz offers a wonderful alto coda on "Someone Took the Words Away," and Lew Soloff contributes a Miles Davis-like muted flugelhorn to the exuberant "Let Me Tell You About Her."
In all, it's an amazing, powerfully affecting record — one of those rare midnight-to-dawn albums that pierces you right where you live. North is not an artless record — in fact, the complexity of its creation is on display in every cut — but it projects the feeling of artlessness, for we are hearing Elvis Costello alone with his bruised but healing heart.