Just when Elvis Costello fans thought they could breathe a sigh of relief that the eclectic rocker had returned to his loud, angry roots with 2002's When I Was Cruel, the British-born artist has unearthed another facet of his creative persona.
Meet the jazz balladeer.
Such is the Elvis Costello you'll hear on North, his latest album featuring 11 songs in a mostly melancholic, slow-paced mode. And it's also likely the Elvis Costello you'll hear in person, when he brings his North-inspired tour, featuring his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve, to the Mizner Park Amphitheater on Saturday night.
But the 49-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer insists it's a mistake to see this as a new twist in his three-decade career, which was launched in 1977 with My Aim Is True, his widely praised, punk-influenced debut. If anything, his early success may be an aberration.
"I'm a ballad singer who happens to sing rock 'n' roll," he said by phone last week.
And in the same toying-with-expectations manner, he's quick to dismiss any arty notions of North being a "song cycle."
"It summons up grand images when you use those words," he says.
At the same time, Costello admits the North songs are generally unified by a relaxed style. In that respect, it's easy to see the kind of influence his new (and third) wife, the jazz singer Diana Krall, might have had on the project.
Says Costello of the songs: "They don't have easy hook lines. They're more like a monologue. And they're very contained in the low register and very still in terms of tempo and rhythms."
Costello (birth name Declan McManus) also makes the point that he asked the performers on the album, including both jazz and classical musicians, to take a less-is-more approach. "I don't have the musicians do dazzling things because that would have been a contradiction to the mood of the record.... I was asking them to play with such stillness."
Can North come from the same artist who gave us such raucously pointed tunes as "Radio, Radio," "Pump It Up," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?"
"With me, the different voices I employ represent different kinds of moods," Costello counters. But he's quick to add that they "all come out of the same head."
And it's a head that's always been quick to embrace a challenge. Costello first surprised his listeners with Almost Blue, his 1981 album of country covers. In 1993, he teamed up with the Brodsky Quartet, a classical ensemble, for The Juliet Letters, a pop-meets-chamber music mélange. The inspiration for the partnership? A string quartet offers distinct advantages over a rock group, Costello says.
"You're able to turn corners less consciously," he explains. (Costello also joined forces with another classical artist, opera singer Anne-Sofie Von Otter, in the 2001 album, For the Stars.)
Perhaps Costello's most famous collaboration was his 1998 album with Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory. And don't forget his partnership with Paul McCartney, which resulted in "Veronica," one of Costello's few songs to crack the Top 20.
From these two pop greats, Costello says he learned the value of "extreme attention to detail." And the importance of staying true to a song, especially musically.
"With both of them, once the melodies are established, they're unyielding rhythmically. They won't accommodate additional notes.... They want the melody to be the shape it was," he says of Bacharach and McCartney. It's in stark contrast to Costello's more literary-minded approach to songwriting. "My first impulse is (to focus on) what is being said, not how it's being sung," he adds.
But for all Costello's gifts as a songwriter, his contributions as a singer may be just as significant. His voice has a blunt edge, but it can be used to rhapsodic effect. Consider his lilting rendition of Charles Aznavour's "She," which was on the soundtrack to the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant comedy, Notting Hill.
It was an opportunity that Costello, who describes himself as the vocal equivalent of a character actor, couldn't refuse. "It's like being William Bendix or Walter Pidgeon and suddenly getting to play the Cary Grant role," he says, continuing the cinematic analogy.
He jumped on a similar chance to record Smile for Japanese television. "I don't write many songs with that kind of romantic purity to them," he says.
Costello keeps up-to-date with the latest musical happenings. He mentions OutKast's "Hey Ya!" as a record that has particularly impressed him.
"It's fantastic, not so much as a song, but as a great piece of recording," he says.
But he's just as likely to listen to jazz or classical as rock. Ask him to name some of his favorite composers and he'll quickly mention Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Dowland and Erich Korngold.
Oh, and don't forget Schubert, who practically invented the art song as we know it. "He's the greatest songwriter in history," Costello says.