North is another of Elvis Costello's periodic detours from rock, but rather than a pretentious diversion (such as The Juliet Letters, 1993's venture with the Brodsky Quartet) or an intermittently brilliant experiment (Painted From Memory, 1998's collaboration with Burt Bacharach), it is a uniform success.
On North, Costello croons like Chet Baker through 11 quiet, piano-based ballads. They constitute a song cycle about love lost and found, journeying from the confused dismay of "You Left Me in the Dark" to the breathless joy of "I'm in the Mood Again." For the most part, Costello eschews his trademark irony and wordplay. In their place, he's written direct, concise lyrics appropriate for the somber settings.
Likewise, pianist Steve Nieve is a model of restraint, playing slowly and softly, accompanied by a small rhythm section and occasional swells of strings and horns (including solos from jazz greats Lee Konitz and Lew Soloff).
North may not rock, but it's an impressive, rewarding achievement.