Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2003

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Wall Street Journal

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Elvis Costello's Diary Of Life in a 'Darker Place'


Jim Fusilli

A hymn to melancholy and, in essence, an 11-song suite, Elvis Costello's new album, " North," (Deutsche Grammophon) is his most fully realized work. His writing is superbly suited to his baritone voice, and his singing splendidly captures the somber, achingly romantic mood sustained by the orchestrations he crafted. The core backing unit -- Peter Erskine on drums, Mike Formanek on acoustic bass and Mr. Costello's brilliant, long-time colleague Steve Nieve on piano -- provides sympathetic support amid the lush 48-piece ensemble. Guest soloists include veterans Lee Konitz on alto sax and Lew Soloff on trumpet.

The 49-year-old Mr. Costello began writing "North" last year while on tour behind "When I Was Cruel," the follow-up to his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, "Painted From Memory." About that time, Mr. Costello's 16-year marriage to Cait O'Riordan crumbled, and he was deeply affected.

"You can go along and think everything is fine until it's not," he told me during a lengthy conversation at the Mercer Hotel here. "Then you realize you're in a darker place than you thought."

Mr. Costello took refuge in his work, stealing time between gigs to write the songs in hotel rooms, dressing rooms and on the tour bus -- wherever he could gain access to a keyboard.

"I wasn't consciously writing an album," he recalled, "nor did I realize I was tracking my own heart. I certainly didn't realize I was telling any kind of story until I got to the end."

Mr. Costello recorded the songs on "North" in the order he wrote them. Thus, the album is a diary. The opening track, "You Left Me in the Dark," captures the moment when he realizes love is lost: "You left me standing alone/Although I thought that we could not be parted." The second track, "Someone Took the Words Away," finds him chiding himself for being unable to articulate his dark emotions. "A change has come over me I'm powerless to express."

However, without altering the mood, Mr. Costello soon suggests that a new love may be entering his life, but he's not at all confident he's willing to take the risk. In "You Turned to Me," he sings, "It's never worth the price you pay," adding, "Now as evening becomes the dawn/I wonder where you'll be/And just why you turned to me."

The woman in question in most of Mr. Costello's new songs is Diana Krall, the Canadian jazz singer, to whom he is engaged. That Mr. Costello and Ms. Krall are public figures may obscure the universal sentiments he's expressed in "North." Indeed, the album isn't about two celebrities who've fallen in love. It's about a man at the edge of despair who, though he's thoroughly smitten, remembers too well the pain of heartache.

"These songs are probably more significant to me than to the listener," said Mr. Costello. "Some of the lyrics have private meanings, and they should probably stay that way. I'm reluctant to make it a soap opera." He added that he's well aware his songs can take on their own personal meanings for his fans and that "North" might be a balm to those similarly disheartened by love and reluctant to try again.

"North" is distinguished from the rock music for which he's well known -- he's recorded more than a dozen such albums since his 1977 debut and earlier this year was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- but it complements other recordings from his vast body of work. In addition to his album with Mr. Bacharach, he's written for the late jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, recorded with the Brodsky Quartet, scored "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for an Italian dance company, sang with Tony Bennett, the Mingus Big Band and on Roy Nathanson's marvelous "The Fire at Keaton's Bar and Grill." From the earliest days of his career, he experimented, releasing a true-to-the-original version of "My Funny Valentine" in 1978.

While Mr. Costello continues to play his rock material -- in the past week or so, he did two shows with Mr. Nieve at Town Hall and a TV appearance with his band, the Imposters -- the songs on "North" and the style in which they're performed are more indicative of his background. Two of his biggest musical influences are his father, who was a trumpeter and singer in dance bands in and around London, and his mother, who managed a record shop. They favored swing and jazz: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes and be-bop. Mr. Costello's mother was delighted when Mr. Konitz sent her an autograph after a session for her son.

"I didn't know anything about rock 'n' roll until I was nine," he said. "'It's Now or Never' was the first Elvis Presley song I'd heard. I preferred Peggy Lee and Lee Wiley."

If he had his druthers, he said, he would have put strings on "Watching the Detectives," a song on his debut album. His best rock recording, 1982's "Imperial Bedroom," is rich with orchestrations crafted by Mr. Nieve.

Mr. Costello is perhaps best known for his cryptic, cutting and often clever lyrics. On this point, "North" is a marked departure. "There's no overt use of irony," he said, "no disguises of emotional consequences, no diversions. I had no self-consciousness about what I wanted to write."

Thus, at times the lyrics are almost painfully direct, as Mr. Costello steps from behind witty wordplay. "I long to hear you whisper my name/'til you tell me/'My Darling, you may be my man,'" he sings in the lovely "Can You Be True?" Though his heart isn't thoroughly healed, in "Still" he concedes, "Sometimes words may tumble out but can't eclipse/The feeling when you press your fingers to my lips."

"People may have mistaken my skepticism about romance, which has been a theme I've expressed through bitterness," he said. "But this record is about longing. It's an expression that says love can exist."

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Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2003


Jim Fusilli writes about North


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