After turning up the volume with When I Was Cruel Elvis Costello set out on the complete opposite course for his next album by focusing solely on piano and gentle orchestral ballads. Perhaps inspired the dissipation of his second marriage and the start of a new relationship, Costello found himself in a much more reflective and tender mood. North is an interesting album that follows the breakup of a relationship and the gradual hope of a new one just starting. While the concept is certainly unique the album itself is a bit of an underwhelming experience.
"You Left Me in the Dark" opens the album with gentle piano and a few strings thrown in for good measure. This is appropriate for the album because those are about the only instruments you hear on the record. "When Did I Stop Dreaming?" and "Someone Took the Words Away" are all soft jazzy ballads that talk about the loss of a relationship and trying to pick up the pieces afterwards. The album follows this arc until later tracks like "Let Me Tell You About Her", "I'm in the Mood Again" and "When Green Eyes Turn Blue", which are naturally more optimistic and hopeful. Lyrically the album is solid and Costello's personal lyrics help keep things interesting even when the music tends to drag.
Two songs that I really love here are "When It Sings" and "Still". Both are catchy and beautifully orchestrated, using simple piano chords and structures to draw you in. A lot of the songs on the album sound alike but these two stand out as being a bit different and more memorable, at least to me.
To be honest, there's not much more to say. The album is mostly Costello and a piano churning out jazzy and queit arrangements. It's not bad and I applaud Costello for keeping things fresh; however, it just feels kind of dull and never really gets off the ground the way you expect it to. Costello has a remarkable track record of beautiful piano ballads ("Deep Dark Truthful Mirror", "Shipbuilding", "Shot With His Own Gun") so an entire album of this material had the potential to be mind-blowing. Unfortunately it just doesn't work and while it's great to see Costello in such a bright mood it fails to really grab and hold your attention throughout its duration.
North isn't a bad record but it's probably my least-favorite EC record and it's the one that I reach for the least. It's good rainy day music and it's nice for a change but only the most dedicated of fans will find themselves playing it over and over again. I saw Costello on the tour for this album and live these tracks were great. Unfortunately the energy of a live show just can't translate to a recorded song and it shows here.