Sydney Morning Herald, September 27, 2003

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Elvis Costello

Bernard Zuel

This is as intimate an album as Elvis Costello has ever fashioned. More intimate than we might have imagined from a man who always followed his own advice: "Don't wear your heart out on your sleeve, when your remarks are off the cuff."

It's stripped of the wordplay and abstractions that have both defined his style and enabled him to deflect attempts to infer the personal. Instead he speaks directly and plainly, not hiding the flood of conflicting emotions behind the bland expression falling in love.

Love isn't combat here but, at first, ebb and flow, doubt and exultation — a stumbling in and quick step back in defence. And then the early hesitance of the protagonist falls away to reveal the most unabashed moments Costello has ever committed to paper. From "all the words you say to me have music in them" in "When It Sings," to the self-mocking "Let Me Tell You about Her," where the newly-in-love finds himself so voluble about this woman that "when I start to speak [friends] roll their eyes", we are amidst happiness without calculation.

The lyrical intimacy is matched by the vocal closeness. Costello sings primarily down in his rarely used baritone register, his phrasing precise but intense, and there's none of the reach demanded by the songs on The Juliet Letters or Painted from Memory, the two closest comparisons in his catalogue. Essentially, he croons.

Musically these 11 ballads are decidedly intimate. There are no big pop hooks and no dramatics. You won't find yourself swept away at first (or even on second or third listen). Instead there's the accretion of elements such as down-tempo jazz chords ("You Turned to Me" has several Charles Mingus-like phrases), the swell of strings lifting a cloud, the quietly searching piano lines or the mellowness of a flugelhorn.

And then the realisation dawns that these melodies have warmth, tenderness and grace. And it becomes clear that emotionally and musically North sits somewhere between Nat King Cole's Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love and Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours. Like the latter it works from a limited palette that says everything you need; like the former it has a sense of relaxed joy in the small moments.

Copyright © 2003. The Sydney Morning Herald.


Sydney Morning Herald, September 27, 2003

Bernard Zuel reviews North.


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