Elvis Costello can be his own worst enemy — or at least, that part of his personality that keeps pushing him into fringe endeavours can be. Clearly unsatisfied with being one of rock's leading singer-songwriters, little over a year after the splendidly waspish When I Was Cruel, he's off into the backwaters again for North, an album of torch songs that plays as resolutely to his weaknesses as previous incongruences Deep Dead Blue and The Juliet Letters, his collaborations with Bill Frisell and The Brodsky Quartet respectively. The latter appear again here, though the musical backbone of the album is supplied by the drummer Peter Erskine, the bassist Mike Formanek and the Attractions pianist Steve Nieve, whose achingly poignant playing on tracks such as "You Turned To Me" furnishes the set's best moments.
Alongside this core group are horns, vibes and a platoon of strings, caressing Costello's brooding laments and melancholy reflections, which would be fine were they employed in the service of a better singer. His habit of sharping notes, rather than
flatting them like blues singers, gives the impression that he's straining beyond his range, a distraction that spoils most performances, leaving the likes of Lee Konitz to rescue a track such as "Someone Took The Words Away" with a contemplative sax solo. And Costello's writing here seems mannered and awkward: if you're going to claim "all the words you say to me / have music in them" as he does in "When It Sings", it's perhaps best not to have the subsequent two lines rhyme the harshly unmusical "prism" and "magnetism".