If you're already in a melancholy mood, then Elvis Costello's new album North (Universal Classics 2003), provides a comfortable retreat — it's like sitting for the evening in a Vegas lounge, cradling a whiskey sour and chatting with a pianist embittered by his failed career and the women who have hurt him along the way.
Mellow and somber with dark harmonies, the entire collection seems to be mourning something or someone lost. Yet the lyrics suggest Costello is finding love, not losing it.
"It's strange to finally find myself so tongue-tied... someone took the words away," he says on the second track, and while the music lapses into instrumentals as he delivers the line, there are plenty of words left for the rest of the album, which walks the line between sung melodies and spoken word.
Although he wrote and arranged all the tracks, Costello only appears on piano in the final track. But his voice blends from song to song in what begins to feel like one long conversation: North isn't so much a series of songs as a 40-minute opus to the bittersweet nature of love.
It's difficult to differentiate between the songs. One may be about meeting a lover, the next about losing her, but the tone is the same. Much like the cover of album, picturing Costello huddling in his coat as he walks along a rainy street, the damper never comes off the music. It's not simply restrained, it's as though the whole thing has been wrapped in a wet blanket.
Songs that are meant to be plaintive sound like lamentations. It seems like he must be tearing his hair or beating his chest. But most likely he's looking at you through those big black glasses and commiserating.
The music on North isn't bad, but it fades into the background. Maybe it is meant to: The strength of the album, and this is likely true of most of Costello's music, is in the lyrics. His piano and orchestral arrangements are good but not uncommon.
And in case you wanted to know what Costello was thinking as he composed the album, you can check out the accompanying DVD. Costello sits at a chipped upright piano, sprinkled liberally with decaying fall foliage — as if to impress the mood of the music visually.
It's hard to be up on this album after listening to it. Though relaxing, North is far from uplifting. And that's the mood it appears Costello was trying to elicit with this solemn offering.