In many ways, this is his most intimate collection. And all this with less than 12...
Rob Webb 2002
Ballads feature throughout Elvis Costello's output, from 1977's "Alison" and the lacrymose "Almost Blue", to his recent collaboration with Burt Bacharach. His latest project is a suite of eleven self-composed piano ballads, some of which are the kind one might expect to hear in a smoky jazz lounge, behind the clinking of glasses and the murmur of voices. But this is no jazz album. North was recorded at Avatar Studios and Nola Recording in New York City and is released on Deutsche Grammophon. Despite the posh label, though, it's no classical album either. It is, however, his most successful attempt to escape the rock idom.
Costello has set himself a tough task here. Many of his compositions are vocally challenging, with some tricky phrasing, and Elvis exposes himself more than usual through the sparse and formal arrangements. Nevertheless, he exquisitely weaves around his melodies, as a slick as glycerine, as tight and prickly as a pinecone. Those who found his vocal style on the Bacharach collection a little ear-splitting at times, will welcome his consistent and mostly contained baritone register on North: it's certainly some of Costello's best singing, on any record.
The highlights- "You Turned to Me", "Fallen", "Let Me Tell You About Her"- are delivered with a careful maturity and a grown-up voice and, compositionally, are streets ahead of his earlier work in this style. Elvis is accompanied on most of these, as ever, by his trusty lieutenant Steve Nieve and his grand piano (although our man plays piano on two tracks). The remaining Attractions are replaced by Peter Erskine on drums and Mike Formanek on double bass. A forty-eight-piece ensemble of horns, strings and rhythm section provides the remaining instrumentation where necessary, the middle eights filled with soft sax solos and muted trumpet parts, courtesy of soloists Lee Konitz and Lew Soloff. On "Still" he is reunited with The Brodsky Quartet, with whom he recorded the rather lacklustre Juliet Letters in the early Nineties. The reunion is altogether more auspicious.
"Someone Took The Words Away", which almost slips into The Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New" at it's opening line, turns out to be a beautiful heartfelt song about getting tongue-tied. Not something Elvis would normally suffer from, one would think. "When Did I Stop Dreaming" is dark and brooding, as good as any Elvis tune in this mode. After a dramatic opening burst of strings, "Can You Be True?" is yet another terrific love song. In many ways, this is his most intimate collection. And all this with less than 12 bars of electric guitar on the entire record. North confirms Costello's position as one of the most accomplished songwriters of the last thirty years.