Elvis Costello used to be a victim of his own aspirations; now he's not the only one, I realized when I heard Diana Krall's new album, The Girl in the Other Room. It's the product of the Canadian singer/pianist's romance with Costello (the two were married late last year): Instead of the pre-rock ballad standards that she's sung almost exclusively until now, it includes covers of Costello's "Almost Blue" and songs by Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits, as well as five songs she co-wrote with Costello, featuring lyrics about "exchanging rings" and "a sparkling band."
Krall's performances are mostly so genteel and slackly rendered that the album practically orders a glass of white wine the moment it starts playing. And her writing collaborations with her husband are disastrous concessions to his idioms and tics. They're not just Costello but bad Costello — syntax-torturing, proper-name-dropping rhymes ("We took the long way to get back / Like driving over the Malahat") and cryptic wallowing ("I hope you never feel this much despair / Or know the meaning of that empty chair"). A parody of late-period Costello probably couldn't have a much more dead-on title than "Abandoned Masquerade." What had gone wrong, I wondered?
Looking at a Costello news site for some kind of explanation, I realized that I'd forgotten about North, the eminently forgettable album of piano ballads he made last year, inspired by his romance with Krall. (Click here to read one Slate reviewer's more positive take on North.) The site also mentioned what Costello's been up to lately: He's been making a new album with the Imposters (the new lineup of his reliable rock band, the Attractions — good news) in Oxford, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn. (questionable news), potentially to be called South (red flag), which will be released simultaneously this fall with his new orchestral instrumental album, Il Sogno (bad news), which will in turn come with a bonus disk recorded at the North Sea Jazz Festival (extremely bad news).
And then it hit me: Krall and Costello may have brought each other happiness as people. But they're a terrible influence on each other's careers.
Costello's great weakness is wanting to be seen as a serious artiste who's equally at home in high and low culture, North and south — the kind of cachet and flexibility that, one might suppose, comes automatically to people like Krall, who sing "All or Nothing at All" and "I'm Through With Love," but not so easily to the guy behind "Pump It Up" and "Oliver's Army." For the last decade or so, he's been flaunting the distance between his social-climbing collaborations (with the Brodsky Quartet, Anne Sofie von Otter, and so on) and his rock 'n' roll side. North is more or less his stab at making a sober, dignified Diana Krall album, except that all the material is his own; its back-cover credit says "Composed, Arranged and Conducted by Elvis Costello." (Disposable tunes are "written," serious works are "composed," see?)
The irony that Costello apparently doesn't notice is that when he waves this sort of high-culture/low-culture distinction around, he sells himself short as an artist. His early albums, recorded when he wasn't so concerned about who he was trying to impress, are not exactly lacking in cultural capital. And the genre-of-the-week projects he's been pumping out for the last decade or so don't have the same kind of staying power. Costello's setlists with the Imposters include, almost exclusively, two kinds of songs: brand new stuff and songs he wrote before 1987. (Even 2002's watch-me-play-rock album When I Was Cruel has been almost entirely banished from his live performances.)
Krall, in the meantime, has caught Costello-itis. She's a solid musician when her repertoire is the Great American Songbook as it stood 50 years ago, but perhaps spending lots of time around a singer who writes his own material has convinced her that it would be a good idea for her to do the same. The post-Beatles commonplace that songs are always somehow more meaningful or worthwhile when singers write their own material is simply untrue in her case. The best Krall performance on The Girl in the Other Room is her version of Arthur Herzog and Irene Kitchings' "I'm Pulling Through," which Billie Holiday recorded in 1940; the worst is its Krall-Costello companion piece "I'm Coming Through," an icky meander through self-help clichés ("The things we shared / Have hurt us both so much sometimes / We each go places love can't touch"). Krall's music for "Departure Bay," which nods to former Costello collaborator Burt Bacharach, is vague but evocative. The rest is just vague.
Becoming a singer/songwriter (and, perhaps, marrying a famous one) also seems to have led Krall to others whose performances she can't quite shake off. Her version of Mose Allison's "Stop This World" cops Allison's clipped, reserved delivery; her arrangement of Tom Waits' "Temptation" is a polite, almost entirely degritted imitation of Waits' own version. They're the sorts of songs that Costello could make his own without a second thought, but Krall is far better at sublimating her own voice to a song.
Costello, on the other hand, naturally overpowers almost everything he sings, which is why his attempts to tone himself down for North seem so self-defeating. It's frustrating hearing the two of them try to prove themselves on one another's turf. What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding when it makes you try to step beyond your own limitations?