The songs of “North,” Elvis Costello’s return to an orchestral blueprint, received their live performance debut in short, stripped-down renditions at the first of two sold-out Town Hall concerts Monday. The works, all love songs, contain the most inward-looking lyrics Costello has written in his 26-year recording career. Taking them as a whole, he has captured romance at its initial bloom, when love’s flames singe the soul and thoughts of love are coalescing.
Rather than expand on any theme or speculate on a relationship’s destiny, Costello isolates each formed sentiment, eventually creating a song cycle that owes more to the art-song tradition than any other format he has worked in. While there are similarities in meter to his collaboration with Burt Bacharach and to “The Juliet Letters” with the Brodsky Quartet, the tunes of “North” are free of bitterness or fear. In the title track, he even lends a bit of whimsy singing about, of all things, Canada.
This is a composer with a new-found muse — it’s safe to suggest it’s singer Diana Krall, seated this night in 12th-row center — and his desire to express love and appreciation is buoyed by the vast musical language he uses to convey the message. The extravagant flourishes of Rachmaninoff show up here and there, as does the dryness of Randy Newman. For the most part, though, he has turned to Broadway for inspiration, spinning dramatic songs in the manner of Stephen Sondheim and comic tunes with a splash of Noel Coward.
Toward the end of the two-hour concert, Costello ventured into Krall territory, playing numbers such as his “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4″ re-conceived as a dark and bluesy standard. “I’m in the Mood Again,” from “North,” fit the mold, too, to the point where it could have been a track on one of Frank Sinatra’s late-’50s Capitol recordings
Costello, who played acoustic guitar, sang alone and ended the night at the piano, surrounded the new material with a random collection of older works. Night started with “Accidents Will Happen” and included stellar versions of “Indoor Fireworks,” “God’s Comic” and, most appropriately, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Set also featured his wondrous ballad from 1982, “Shipbuilding,” which could be the one piece from his repertoire that works as a foundation for the new works, and a tender “I Still Miss Someone,” a tribute to the late Johnny Cash.
After his New York shows, Costello begins a European tour.