Elvis Costello is certainly a man who has made an exciting name for himself. For decades, he's been creating rock music that has made him a staple for the fans of his distinctive, original sound.
But first-time listeners to Costello's latest album, North, could easily come away never knowing he's ever sung anything close to rock music. In a surprising move, the entire work is a collection of somber, mellow jazz tracks.
Of course, Costello has made similar music in the past. His compilations with Burt Bacharach and his 2001 release For the Stars, with Sophie Von Otter, have all embraced a jazzy approach.
But considering that his most recent solo release, When I Was Cruel, went in a strictly rock direction releasing such a different album now seems like a non sequitur.
Costello has described his latest album in an interesting way. According to the album's theory, when things go bad in life, they go south. As he puts it, the title, North, is meant to represent the opposite of that phrase.
Surely he has much to be happy about, including — and most relevantly — his engagement to jazz musician Diana Krall.
Unfortunately, this, has left his listeners with a sappy, 11-track love letter to Krall; making all of the songs sound similar at best. After a few minutes of North, song changes become almost indistinguishable, save a few bright spots of innovation scattered throughout the album.
More importantly, the straight-up jazzy sound ultimately doesn't work for Costello. Despite his years in the music industry, Costello does not necessarily possess the type of singing voice that should be the sole, featured element on an album — but his vocals are exactly what North emphasizes.
In a way, it seems like he just lifted Krall's smooth jazz style and transplanted it onto an impetuously released record.
The album does not begin with a bang, but instead it opens with a symphonic whimper. By the time the orchestrated violins that open the first track, "You Left Me in the Dark," have finished playing, North is already making the listener's eyelids feel heavy. The dreary remainder of the opening song does little more to cure this bout of Costello-induced narcolepsy.
Ironically, when the third track — "When Did I Stop Dreaming?" — rears its head, the vast majority of North listeners are probably immersed in a dream even as the song plays. "Fallen" and "When It Sings" follow and do little to change or even excite the painfully dreary tone.
Thankfully, the album is stirred awake with "Still," whose melody actually resembles something that Costello would have written in the past. It is jazzy as well, but the glimmer of Costello's previously distinctive style keeps it from emitting the same tired sound as its musical company.
Sadly, at a pitiful two minutes and 24 seconds, this brief flirtation of consciousness is fleeting to say the least. It ultimately does little to shake the listener from the rest of the album's malaise.
Four more tracks come and go, and North ends, leaving little satisfaction and a lot of questions — questions that mainly concern exactly which direction Costello's next album will take.
It seems that North is nothing more than a listener-subsidized love note that accomplishes nothing more than one good song. Well, not unless it enters the market as a cheap alternative to prescription sleep aids.