With piano, bass and some string orchestrations, Elvis Costello knows exactly what some fans are going to think of his new album, North.
"People will say 'Oh, it's informed by jazz,' but it's just as much informed by songs written in the 19th century," Costello said in a recent phone interview. "They don't have to be the same shape, but what they do have to be is true to the way you feel. And these are very true to my feelings at the moment."
North, which just arrived in stores, is almost a song cycle. The album takes the listener from the end of one relationship to the beginning of a new one - a scenario almost certain to have fans thinking it's a chronicle of his marital breakup and engagement to singer Diana Krall.
"Certainly the record ... isn't set out to tell a story, but it does progress. I always try to not prejudice people's ears by giving too much away," Costello said.
After the return to rock of last year's When I Was Cruel, the new CD is another side trip. North is a set exclusively made up of ballads he wrote on piano.
"I can't really ask people to do more than listen. I will say that it obviously isn't a record that in any way is a continuation of the sound of When I Was Cruel, but then again, When I Was Cruel didn't have anything to do with Painted From Memory, and next to nothing to do with All This Useless Beauty.
"It's very intimate in that I don't sing out a lot. I sing in a low register, close to the listener. It's a very emotional record," Costello said.
The songs came to him in a torrent, sometimes two or three in an evening. His prolific writing pace - one of the things that estranged him from his original label, Columbia, in the '80s makes fans believe the songs always come this way.
"Some of the best work I've done has come that way, but some other really good songs have been worked on over a much longer period," Costello said. "Some of the songs I wrote with Paul McCartney (are like that) - not necessarily the ones most successful in chart success ("Veronica," "My Brave Face"), but the ones that perhaps have a little bit more grit. The song So Like Candy, this has been around awhile, and suddenly it has a permanence to it. You can go back and find a new angle in the drama of it."
If North has a shortcoming, it's in the sameness of the songs. While Costello is going through a variety of emotions (anger, betrayal, hope, joy) he varies his delivery little. Ultimately, the album may be for Costello fanatics.
Costello fans have other reasons to rejoice - the latest three titles in his reissue series are out. Trust, Punch the Clock and Get Happy are all jammed with bonus cuts.
"Get Happy was an exceptional record when it came out because it had 20 tracks. The version coming out ... now has 50 tracks," Costello notes.
Almost as enjoyable as the music is Costello's own liner notes, where he's brutally honest about his music and himself.
"You're trying to tell a story of how the record came to exist. That's what the reissues are," Costello says. "The Get Happy notes ... tell not just about the making of the record, but the dramatic period of time we moved through: The end of our initial pop success. It was not glorious; quite the opposite, it was quite horrifying at times."
He's able to issue these discs exactly as he wants because, unlike most artists, Costello retained the rights to his publishing and his master tapes.
"It's rare for anybody to own his back catalog. Most people sell bits and pieces of themselves because they're forced into it. I managed to be in a position to reclaim all of it."
That freedom has encouraged him to look further for more archive releases.
"We're one of the few performers in the world who doesn't have a DVD of some kind," said Costello, who is scouring for footage from throughout the years to make a live retrospective, hoping for release in 2004. He's located good early performance footage, as well as the MTV videos of his songs.
"People still get a kick out of them because of the funny fashions and odd staging. We're talking about putting out something next year that probably compiles all the video clips but also extends it into some live material."
He also has ideas about putting out complete shows from various eras on CD.
"The problem is I put out too many new records. It's difficult to actually stop long enough to create a gap. If you were really going to do it justice, you'd want to do some snapshot live albums from different periods of time rather than do the compilation live album."
Live At El Mocombo, issued as part of a Rykodisc box set several years ago, "is a reasonably good snapshot of the band in a club, but we certainly played better than that in our time, just not with tape rolling. We had very bad luck early on. Whenever we put a mobile recorder outside we tended not to play well or something went wrong."
These days, with all the archive releases, "there's a tolerance for a slightly less-pristine audio quality. Now you can release something that is literally like a Polaroid, an audio Polaroid, rather than people expecting it to be completely perfect, you know?"