As much as I am a gigantic Elvis Costello fan, I was not thrilled to hear of a "new album" so soon after the disaster that was When I Was Cruel. My only hope remained in that North, unlike When I Was Cruel's amateur rock aping, was being touted as a "piano ballad" album. Having known all along that the man's talents lay in melody-bending rather than form-abiding (look no further than right here for the proof that "rock" doesn't always equals "good"), I was only too ecstatic to find that, indeed, North reinstalls the king upon his throne.
It's no surprise, really, that Costello sounds more vibrant, inspired (by his recent divorce), and creative here than on his last rock album. Think back to some of his best: "Alison," "New Amsterdam," "Accidents Will Happen"… all strong melody songs that "rock" held no restrictions upon. They worked because of finesse, a virtue exercised all over North's beautifully morose gloominess. Accompanied by Attraction Steve Nieve on piano, Costello mourns, sarcastically takes jabs at, romanticizes, and praises the love cycle through tap-dancing vocals and evocative string arrangements. Dread-filled chords resonate at no designated tempo, but rather drop down upon the ears in sequences stretched out like taffy across Costello's trembling voice. A retardation of the speed here, a dramatic accent there, a hastening of mood somewhere else… fragments of desperation and forlorn strung together more cohesively than most songs with a "backbeat." When he softly croons "my darling, I may be your man" at the end of "Can You Be True?," are you still fixating on the fact that there are no pounding drums? No, you're not, you're in awe of the subtleties at work within the winding refrain, its unspoken suggestion lingering like stale smoke in the air for you to inhale long after the song has ended with a slowly-decaying chord.
I pity those who cannot see beyond "form." Perhaps they aren't fans of jazz's articulation? Of Geinsburg's (or Bacharach's) magical seduction? For those people, they can keep their rehashed power chords. For the rest of us, North is a celebration of the songsmith's return to form.