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Elvis Costello - North

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Artist: Elvis Costello

Album: North

Label: Deutsche Grammaphon

Review date: Nov. 2, 2003

Many of us who saw Elvis Costello flipping the bird at what seemed to be the whole world back in the glory days of Saturday Night Live were probably convinced then and there that this was not a guy who was going to surrender to anybody’s expectations.

And in the decades since, that’s how his career has unfolded. It may have been a leap to imagine that the nerd-gone-angry rocker would grow up to collaborate with MOR pop genius Burt Bacharach, but who could have possibly anticipated Costello releasing albums on prestigious Deutsche Gramaphon, the stalwart classical label best known as home to Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic?

North is an aptly titled orchestral song-cycle of love lost and found: Costello’s lodestone points toward a cold and lonely landscape, a mood of bereavement and melancholy; an autumn that moves into winter, then a gently hopeful spring.

Costello wrote the ambitious arrangements himself, and they are steeped in jazz, with a taste of classical lieder. The compass points of their influences range from the cool beatnik heartbreak of late Chet Baker to the lugubrious string arrangements employed by Gordon Jenkins on Frank Sinatra’s late-night masterpiece No One Cares, to the nordic big-band jazz of Palle Mikkelborg’s or Kenny Wheeler’s writing for large ensembles.

Costello stays away from pop hooks here, concentrating instead on a tentative but engaging marriage of words and melody. The arrangements comment upon and serve the songs well; long time Attraction Steve Nieve’s piano anchors the songs in a way that manages to be both clever and solid. And Costello delivers his art songs in a voice that sounds gently cracked by tears and nicotine; redolent with a mood of coffee-gone-cold at the crack of a lonely, sleepless dawn.

Costello has always been as careful a lyricist as he has been a tunesmith. On North he tends to eschew his usual torrents of double meanings and tumbling, clever wordplay, concentrating instead on extended metaphors and clusters of imagery that are sustained for the length of an entire song. This pays off especially well on “Fallen”: a perfect blend and balance of lyric, melody, and arrangement keeps the listener hanging on every word. Then the knife is twisted, and the song hits at the end like a perfectly executed short story.

North is not an album for casual listening; the mood is too strong, too singular. It’s sort of like a 1970s Bergman domestic drama with a 1930s Hollywood score. But to surrender to North is to find a beauty that is as lyrical and tender as it is icy and stark.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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