When great singer-songwriter Elvis Costello married popular pianist and singer Diana Krall last December, the likely musical result (or so it seemed to me and aficionados I know) was that at the least Krall would start singing better songs.
The possibility that Costello's own music might be affected — and for the worse — never crossed our minds.
And standing on the outside of both the relationship and the artistic process of these talented newlyweds, we can't really say it's a matter of cause and effect. In fact, in interviews Costello has denied that his new wife's specialty in jazz piano ballads has altered his own stylistic direction. And if they're both happier, what we think of the music they make is secondary, at most.
Nonetheless, North, the recent Costello album that reflects the emotional ricochet of the singer's divorce and subsequent new love, is his least engaging set in years. And at least in part because the songs from North served as the core of Costello's Tuesday night performance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, this show was the least captivating he's played in the area.
Here it should be pointed out, though, that a less-than-stellar Costello show remains a wonderful thing, a feat of musical depth, range and agility beyond the ken of most artists. But compared with the rock 'n' roll heaven of his two Portland shows in 2002, Tuesday's Elvis seemed a mere talented mortal.
Unlike the 2002 shows, which featured a standard rock quartet, Costello was joined this time only by his longtime keyboardist, Steve Nieve. It's a fruitful format, with Nieve on piano and Costello playing acoustic, or sometimes electric, guitar. The pair showed right away that they can give the music a considerable fullness and drive, opening with the New Wave-era favorite "Accidents Will Happen" and the more recent rocker "45." But they also took advantage of the extra space with subtle expressiveness on ballads such as the dramatic "Shot With His Own Gun," the sadly resigned "Home Truth" and a version of the wistful "Almost Blue" with cool, behind-the-beat phrasing reminiscent of Chet Baker.
For a time, it appeared that the concert would follow a similar thematic arc to North, mixing some of that album's tunes with other tales of romantic woe such as the Burt Bacharach collaboration "This House Is Empty Now" and the country-tinged "Indoor Fireworks" and "Poison Rose." But as the show stretched to more than 30 songs over two-plus hours, that sense faded in the face of failed experiments (an 1860s ballad laced with guitar feedback), crowd-pleasing concessions ("Alison," "Pump It Up," the Nick Lowe-penned "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding") and political protest both explicit (an anecdotal interlude in "God's Comic") and implied (the exquisite anti-war ballad "Shipbuilding").
But time and again he returned to North songs. He's taken similar detours before into art song and classic pop balladry to wonderful effect. But these songs, however heartfelt and skillful, are somehow charmless, narrow in both mood and pitch range, handsome yet uninviting.
He did, however, play one song he said was from a forthcoming album, a catchy pop song about a triangular relationship. It was reassurance enough that he has plenty more great writing in him. And, probably, plenty of shows even better than this one.