As thrilling as it was to hear Elvis Costello revisit his articulate anger on the wonderful When I Was Cruel, it's not surprising that the singer's new album shows that was just a side trip.
North, in Costello's parlance, suggests both geography and a state-of-mind. The title track, available only on the Internet, is an ode to Canada. The album, though, is filled with elegant piano jazz that reflects an artist who has worked with Burt Bacharach and is engaged to singer-pianist Diana Krall.
More Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra than MTV Unplugged, these romantic ballads aren't merely an instrumental gimmick, strings and horns administered to commercially viable pop ballads.
The Brodsky Quartet is on hand for one song ("Still") and there are fewer than 12 measures of electric guitar on the album, none of which surfaces too obviously.
Instead, Costello invests himself in these achingly beautiful songs with the authenticity of a 3 a.m. lounge singer.
Turns out that much of the material was written in the wee hours, as the singer was unwinding from shows on last year's tour. It's a song cycle that begins in loneliness ("You Left Me in the Dark") and eventually finds the bleary-eyed hope of "I'm in the Mood Again."
"See how the elements obey?" Costello asks in the opening couplet. "Eyes are blue. Skies are grey. Nothing I can do to make you stay. I'm glad it will rain today."
His smoky baritone, set in crooner mode, is particularly effective on the album's first half, devoted to love gone bad. Steve Nieve's delicate piano, the instrument that defines these arrangements, is anchored in minor keys, though it also wanders into sweeter terrain.
An icy-sounding muted flugelhorn colors the world-weary jubilation of "Let Me Tell You About Her," which reflects the hard-won joy of love with Gershwin-esque richness.
"Some things are too personal, too intimate to spill, Costello explains. "And gentlemen don't speak of them. This one never will."
Too many words would just spoil the atmosphere, which reaches its subtle peak on the closing "I'm in the Mood Again." The song evokes a damp, awakening New York street, where an undaunted lover awaits the sunrise.
"You took the breath right out of me," Costello sings. "Now you'll find it in the early hours in a lover's song."
Hopefully, that song is as evocative as the ones Costello offers on North.