Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Elvis Costello 22: North

Despite a career spent dabbling in countless musical styles, whenever Elvis put out an album that didn’t include another clone of “Pump It Up”, it got slammed. North had the honor of being named on lists for both the best and the worst albums of 2003 in Entertainment Weekly. The key complaint raised there, and all over the Internet, is that the album doesn’t have any melodies, which is horse-hockey. North is full of melodies, and gorgeous ones too, with arrangements are closer to such classic torch song collections as Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely.
Though he was quick to say otherwise, the album was written and recorded in the wake of his separation and subsequent divorce from his (second) wife of 17 years, followed by his romance with Diana Krall, a respected singer/pianist known for her reverent versions of jazz standards (not unlike the contents of this album). Whatever the inspiration, it’s still a haunting song cycle examining the arc from love lost to love found.
After a swirl of strings that functions as a prelude, “You Left Me In The Dark” is a fairly straightforward statement of melancholy solitude. “Someone Took The Words Away” goes even deeper, with an extended sax solo that brings to mind Tom Waits’ beatnik era. “When Did I Stop Dreaming?” breaks out of the startled mood with an arrangement worthy of Tony Bennett, followed by the brief but effective “You Turned To Me”. “Fallen”, the album’s best song, evokes the images of leaves falling from trees, with a plea for “someone to shake me loose” out of despair. “When It Sings” is loaded with clever rhymes and oblique wordplay, accompanied by punctuating strings.
“Still” is a rare display of tenderness from a guy known for songs about jealousy. Lest we feel we’re eavesdropping, he chooses to hold his joy close to his chest in “Let Me Tell You About Her”, featuring rhymes straight out of Cole Porter. “Can You Be True?” goes back to Sinatra territory, and “When Green Eyes Turn Blue” has all the hallmarks of a Big Finish, from its grand arrangement and dramatic strings to the perfect ending. But the last word goes to “I’m In The Mood Again”, in which the narrator slings his coat over his shoulder, his hat at a jaunty angle, and wanders among the lampposts out of Manhattan, happy again. (There was a title track of sorts, only available via a download ticket. It’s just as well; the song—like two others included as bonus tracks overseas—is more of an afterthought or B-side that really doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. )
North is a successful experiment, and fine accompaniment for dusky autumn evenings with a bottle of red wine. This was not the first time he’d put so many low-key ballads together; every album from his first (remember “Alison”?) has had its share. Its closest relative in the canon would be Painted From Memory, another album that pissed off many in his fan base. Those who gave it a chance—and to this day it still divides the faithful—were happy to have it.

Elvis Costello North (2003)—4

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