Since bursting onto the musical map in 1977 with the classic album My Aim Is True, England's horn-rimmed hero Elvis Costello has had a long and gloriously inconsistent career.
Costello's early work with crack-backing band The Attractions gave birth to hits "Watching the Detectives," "Alison," "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio." It landed him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last spring. In the '90s, his collaborative work with Burt Bacharach made most people forget all about him.
And last year, Costello's excellent album When I Was Cruel reminded everyone that the reason the tuneful popster was initially linked with punk rockers was because his lyrics and vocals could be downright vicious. It reminded everyone that for a while there, Costello was heralded as the best songwriter since Bob Dylan.
So how does Costello follow up his caustic rebirth? Anyone who's followed his pendulum of a career knows that the obvious sequel is an album full of softly orchestrated piano ballads.
That's what Costello delivers on North, a moody album that swings from lounge to jazz to subtly symphonic lullabies.
Although the sounds may be pretty, the sentiments are not. North begins with the dejection of "You Left Me In the Dark," where Costello sings bitterly, "Nothing I do can make you stay / I'm glad it will rain today."
Among the vibraphones, french horns and a string section, Costello's sweetly aged voice is the strongest instrument. Without it, the light music on North sounds like it might evaporate. Despite using enough orchestration to warrant release on Universal Music's classical Deutsche Grammophon label, North is stark and minimalistic at times. The brush work of drummer Peter Erskine adds a soft touch to many of the songs and moves the pace while existing just above the auditory radar.
The problem with North's understated delicacy is that it is so unassuming that it may take several listens to even decipher one song from another. Nothing stands out, which is the album's strength and weakness. North works very well as the singular vision of a great artist, but after listening to it for several days, still not one chorus is hummable.
By the end of the album of mellow musings, Costello appears ready to be thinking about his next musical endeavor. On North's finale, the discontent and distrust of old Elvis rears his mangy head, singing, "I walk the damp streets rather than slumber / Along the fine windows of shameless and plunder / But none of their riches could ever compare / I'm in the mood again". Let's hope he is.