"A voice contains many precious things," croons Elvis Costello in the middle of his new album, North; "it laughs and then it sings." He's describing how the sardonic voice of a withering love affair shifts to the giddier voice of a budding romance, but Costello could just as easily be referring to his own vocal style. Costello's voice, which began a quarter-century ago with terse shouts to pump things up, now sports the awareness of an evolving balladeer: He's chosen the crooner's palate of vocal precision, lyrical grace, and world-weary charm over the intensity, irreverence, and irony of a rocker.
After several nods toward crooning in the past, North is the first full album where Costello doesn't have one foot in each camp. He gives full run to the balladeer he'd hinted at harboring inside him, at the expense of more traditional Elvis Costello fare. North might be an awkward transition into the world of a crooner, but Costello sings with such an awareness of his own voice that some of these awkward moments are the ones most worth a listen.
The new album, recorded without any evidence of electric instruments, is an inner monologue expressed in tonal shifts and wandering melodies rather than verse and chorus. For the first few tracks, Costello sings in a breathy mutter over gentle piano chords and baleful saxophone solos. He pairs the approaching fall — gray skies, rain, and fallen leaves — with the mutual exhaustion of a long-dead partnership. "Maybe this is the love song that I refused to write her when I loved her like I used to," he muses. The last tracks of the album, though still ballads, are giddier rushes of excitement about a new love. By Track 8, "Let Me Tell You About Her," Costello, accompanied by a lilting piano, has shaved 10 years off his voice.
Yet, it's the songs in the limbo of the album's midsection — "You Turned to Me," "Fallen," and "When It Sings" — that fully realize the work of North. Here, Costello still hasn't shaken the old love nor has he fully realized the new one. His voice and songwriting work best, somewhere between resolution and the reopening of raw wounds, alongside surprising musical jolts from major to turbulent minor.
For Costello, these are pretty anemic lyrics. Only once in North are we treated to a wily, Declan-esque turn of phrase, and that happens all the way at the end, in "I'm in the Mood Again" ("I lay my head down on fine linens and satin / Away from the mad hatters who live in Manhattan"). The rest of the album is mostly vowel-heavy syllables ripe for sustaining, the sort that are essential to the structure of a singable torch song. Try it yourself: Slowly say a simple but classically croonable line like Jerome Kern's "All the things you are / are mine" out loud. The lyrics aren't profound, but notice the way the vowels open up your mouth. Soft, unbroken sounds let a balladeer paint wide, broad strokes with breath, tone, and phrasing. As a ballad writer, Costello sacrifices the verbal squad-drill of songs like "Watching the Detectives" for smaller, slower words that, though just as tight, are easier to croon.
Of course, he's been hinting in this direction for decades. Inklings of the crooner appeared in Costello's singing as early as 1977's My Aim Is True. On "Alison," for instance, he pairs that classic tense, high vibrato with a hiccuping, Buddy Holly-style low-end melody, wearing his old-soul influences on his sleeve. As Costello volleyed between straight-up rock albums and more experimental releases for the next 25 years, he left many examples of developing balladry in his wake, tapping heavy hitters in the ballad business both for cover material (Gram Parsons, Smokey Robinson, Chet Baker, Burt Bacharach) and for collaborations (Bacharach again, Tony Bennett, Roy Orbison, Anne Sofie Von Otter). Two other musicians are important to mention, especially in terms of North's emotional scope: Costello's fiancee, torch singer Diana Krall, and ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan, whom Costello divorced in 2002.
With North, Costello stands alone, covering nobody (though occasionally sounding like Moss Hart mixed with a not-so-sly Randy Newman), arranging and conducting the album himself, opting against any duet-ers or looped backing vocals for support. Further, Costello shuns the pop and rock singing sensibility that often mired his best vocal experiments by surrounding them in the grin of kitsch. Think of his cameo in the Austin Powers sequel; he mugged through "What Do You Get When You Fall in Love" in a silly hat. These performances were fun; they were skilled, but Costello's style (a growl here, a run of punnery there) exposed the inevitable next rock release in his master plan. He sang these songs as a self-mocking rocker in balladeer's clothing.
Consider "Expert Rites" from 1993's The Juliet Letters, where his post-punk yawp is stuffed into a more classically rendered song of loss. Now, contrast this with another (albeit less passionate) song of loss, "Fallen" from North, where Costello maintains a warm, measured tone, sliding rather than thrusting, like a bow drawn across the lowest string of a double bass. He's toned down both the action of the lyric and the intensity of his voice here, evoking the weary shrug of, say, Sinatra in "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" or Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" — both advanced bits of crooning in their own right.
Thankfully, most of North's orchestral arrangements are spare and satisfying, save a few melodramatic string hits (like the prelude to "Can You Be True?"). Pianist Steve Nieve is a tight addition to yet another Costello effort, accompanying Costello on all but two tracks (where Costello plays the piano himself). Nieve — an original member of Costello's band the Attractions — has been essential to Costello's shift from mewling Turk to soulful crooner. Here, his measured bell tones put an even pace to Costello's vocals. Nieve's contribution is echoing and raw; the recording often picks up the sound of the piano pedals as he pushes them down. (For more evidence of this partnership at its most spare and glorious, see the excellent Costello & Nieve box set, creative reworkings of the Costello catalog played live over a series of gigs.) The Brodsky Quartet (plus Nieve) makes a solid and feeling contribution to "Still," but the music is more that of accompaniment than their stirring work in the foreground of The Juliet Letters.
In terms of a rock (or pop) litmus test, North might disappoint. It's too slow, too earnest; the moods of its pieces lack the winking intensity of, say, "Welcome to the Working Week" or even "When I Was Cruel." Perhaps North should be placed alongside Broadway ballads at their weirdest, or maybe next to German song cycles as canonized by Schubert and Hugo Wolf, where one theme is carefully explored in a series of related sonic patterns, spotlighting the vocal line and inviting ambitious tuners to push their crooning to the limit. Lovers of Elvis Costello will appreciate the leaps North takes: the uncut warmth of his voice and the guts it takes to croon solo, unmasked, without irony or apology.