Well, it was fun while it lasted, but you can put away the dancing shoes. Elvis has left the ballroom.
Last year's When I Was Cruel was Costello's return to the sound and spirit of the snarling young rocker, but since his career is an adventure in genre-hopping, it's no surprise to see him pirouette 180 degrees. American saloon song meets European art song in North (in stores Tuesday), which recounts a romantic meltdown and reawakening in the vernacular of pre-rock torch music and jazz-dappled pop standards.
Tempos range from near-stillness to measured, the emotional pitch is rigorously restrained, the modulations of mood are sometimes all but imperceptible. A meditative tone emerges from spare settings — some songs are formed by just piano, bass and voice, while others introduce strings and horns — and from a focus on the specifics of this singer's story. Costello's phrasing is conversational but idiosyncratic, and his register is a clear, intimate baritone.
Lyrically, the noted wordsmith seems determined to avoid knee-jerk signifiers and easy slogans, big-sell choruses and clever couplets. That keeps him well clear of cliches, but the bargain leaves his introspections on the dry side, sometimes to the point of austerity. That North remains so consistently moving testifies to the music's power to animate the scenarios.