Few musicians have made such successful careers as Elvis Costello by confounding expectations. His epic discography seems to dutifully cover virtually every genre (excluding hip-hop, thankfully): From the ska-inflected wit of his debut, My Aim Is True, to the Byrdsian rock bombast of Armed Forces, to King of America's stripped down Americana, Costello has painted himself as something of a reclusive, embittered Bowie — a songwriting chameleon given more to political discourse than grandiose, caricatured personas. Unfortunately, with each passing year, his wide-ranging ambitions seem to become more of a nuisance than an inspirational creative light.
Costello has always seemed to have a difficult time reconciling the critic in him with the artist, and it speaks volumes that one of his most inspired moments of late took place not in the studio, but at a desk: His Vanity Fair article "Rocking Around the Clock" was an immensely enjoyable, meticulously documented, hour-by-hour blueprint for an ideal full day of binge music listening. In a rare moment, Costello flashed his true inner manically-obsessive-music-dork nature. Of course, he's taken the time to entertain many of his inner music critic's fantasies over the years, as well, and while some of these indulgences have struck musical paydirt, his diverse ambitions have often come at the cost of his music's consistency, and have largely muddied the proverbial waters of his aesthetic voice over the years.
Unfortunately, North, Elvis Costello's 24th (yes, 24th) album is among his least inspiring to date. Conceptually, the album should have been a knockout. Costello's music has always fared best when its arrangements were stripped to their bare essentials, creating an intimate space for his wry voice, witty narratives and poignant melodies. And while Costello saw success with his landmark "intimate" guitar album, 1985's King of America, he'd never before made a sister album for it, of piano-based material. Costello's piano songs, like the pensive, yearning "Almost Blue" (from 1982's abstract pop masterpiece Imperial Bedroom) and the gently heroic "Shipbuilding" (off 1983's Punch the Clock) have accounted for some of the most moving and inspired moments of his career.
The only catch with North is that Costello seems less concerned with presenting a collection of melodically clever and empathetic songs filled with his trademark sense of irony and double-entendre than with recording an album for the classical and jazz elites. In other words, it looks like the result of self-conscious pandering to his inner music critic. Note that Costello inexplicably released the album on the acclaimed classical label, Deutsche Grammophon (the beaming yellow of the label's logo jumps out ridiculously against the sharp gray contrasts of the album art), and while he might gain "street cred" amongst the classical music in-crowd with this move, the result makes for his least compelling work yet.
North may be better understood as a stylistic experience than as a musical one: Costello has eschewed all sense of melody and humor in favor of rambling, mock-jazz noodling. Where Costello matched the sparse arrangements of his jazz-influenced classic "Almost Blue" with the nuanced simplicity of standards like "Body and Soul," North defies this simple beauty as one long drab exercise. Fortunately, the album does find some saving grace in the iconic marvel of Costello's voice. His delivery here sounds like a rich, thick slab of wet red paint, adding rich texture and depth to the dim gray backdrop of his accompaniment. Also, touches of classic Costello rear their head every now and again; especially on the yearning nostalgia of "Fallen" ("I believed that life was wonderful, right up to the moment when love went wrong") and "I'm in the Mood Again," the elegant, wondrous love song set amidst New York City which closes the album.
Still, from the melodramatic opener "You Left Me in the Dark" (sample lyric: "You left me standing alone / Although I thought that we could not be parted"), notes tumble on ad infinitum, leading nowhere and standing in direct contrast to their meticulously crafted maudlin surroundings. The sentimental "When Did I Stop Dreaming" offers a possible excuse for the album's unrelentingly dim mood: If Costello has indeed become paralyzed with cynicism as signified by the lyric, "Pardon me, if I seem distant and strange / Just tell me when did I stop dreaming?," it makes sense that this batch of songs reeks of such icy indifference.
It could be said that part of what makes Elvis Costello such a shape-shifting artist is his unrelenting determination to capture the everlasting beauty he sees within the material of his favorite songwriters. It's a cruel irony that, as he grows older and aims higher, he only falls further away from himself and fails more profoundly at grasping that elusive quality.