Never expect the expected — who doesn't know that about Elvis Costello by now? — but no one seems more surprised by the changes that Costello's life has undergone than the man himself. Asked about the title of his new album, Costello replied, "That's where I'm headed." On an eponymous song — which, perversely, fails to appear here — he croons euphorically about a place "where polar bears and moose and geese will play. And some of them address you en francais. Give me the ice and snow. Time to go... North."
Of course, it's tempting to assume that the North to which Costello refers is the birthplace of his current squeeze, Canadian singer Diana Krall. But whatever the dramatis personae, the most remarkable thing about North is the slightly concussed air of the man singing on it.
There may be a happy ending, but it begins with a mere silhouette of a man, all but indistinguishable among the debris of his relationship. "I thought we'd make it all the way," exclaims the sombre baritone on "You Left Me In The Dark" over the sparest of accompaniments.
On "Someone Took The Words Away," the sparest jazz noir shuffle subtly frames the inarticulate speech of a broken heart. Assisted by sundry passing Brodskys and an ever-intuitive Steve Nieve, there's nothing so intrusive as an electric guitar to puncture the introspection.
Recent interviews have seen Costello expressing his desire to write songs which don't draw attention to their own cleverness. Idle observers might wonder how such intentions square with a classically scored narrative about love lost and then found. But much of the craft in songs like "Fallen" and "You Turn To Me" is hidden. You feel its effect, but if you don't go looking for it, you might never notice it.
On the former, he sings, "I believe that life was wonderful right up to the moment when love went wrong," while strings brightly suggest that Cupid may already be drawing back his bow.
No less affecting is the moment on the latter where — using the same minor/major shift deployed by his namesake on "Can't Help Falling In Love" — Costello sings, "Call my name / And I'll answer." It's one of the great changes of all time, and it suits the song perfectly.
Some criticisms remain. A voice as unmistakable as Costello's doesn't carry pastiche as well as, say, Paddy MacAloon did on Prefab Sprout's kindred Andromeda Heights. The slightly sickly "Let Me Tell You About Her" evokes Peter Skellern far more readily than Stephen Sondheim: "Friends look at me in fond surprise / But when I start to speak they roll their eyes." Who could blame them? Costello, one of music's most fearless polymaths, has yet to master cute.
Impressive as such an enterprise is, past form tells us that an impressive Costello set isn't necessarily one that finds its way into the CD tray too many times. That said, North radiates a humanity that wasn't altogether apparent on, say, The Juliet Letters or When I Was Cruel — and when he sighs, "I don't know what's come over me," over the closing credits conclusion of "I'm In The Mood Again," it would take a hard heart to begrudge him.