Chris Willman
September 26, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

North (Music - Elvis Costello)

Current Status
In Season
Elvis Costello

We gave it an A

Doing the math on Elvis Costello yields some remarkable figures: More than a quarter century and hundreds of compositions into his catalog, you can count the sweet, unbarbed, unremittingly positive love songs he’s written on one hand and still have a digit left to ”wish [someone] luck with a capital F” (to quote this month’s ”Punch the Clock” reissue).

Now comes North, a piano-based ballad cycle that instantly doubles the truly romantic original songs in his canon with an elated second half all about the initial flush of love; the dour first half more characteristically mourns a prior relationship’s breakdown. (We can assume, despite his coyness in confessing, that this narrative mirrors his marital breakup and subsequent engagement to Diana Krall.) With Costello somewhat in let’s-be-Frank mode, it’s as if Capitol reissued the despairing ”Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” and ebullient ”Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” on one disc.

Falling in love has some side effects — like reducing Costello’s vocabulary to a once unthinkable minimalism, with no irony, punmanship, or even Lorenz Hartian wit in sight. Two tracks even take speechlessness as their topic: ”Someone Took the Words Away” describes a repartee deficit in the waning days of (let’s say) a marriage, while ”Let Me Tell You About Her” explores conflicting urges to keep a new lover’s confidence or kiss ‘n’ tell; both end with Costello shutting up and handing the ball to a jazz soloist (Lee Konitz on sax and Lew Soloff on flugelhorn, respectively). Exquisitely arranged orchestra and brass make unobtrusive interjections, rarely rising to overwhelm Steve Nieve’s subdued piano figures or Costello’s hushed confidences.

”North” is, in its latter stretches, a love letter, but not just to a certain jazz thrush. It also feels like a mash note to autumnal Manhattan, most explicitly in ”I’m in the Mood Again,” in which Costello, buzzed on love, spends the wee small hours walking off his high, watching papers being delivered on the empty city streets. A New York stricken by the September blues couldn’t ask for a nicer get-well present.

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