Thursday, 11 October 2018
Elvis Costello - North (2003)
Released September 2003
I own most of Elvis Costello's albums (apart from some of the collaboration ones) and I have to admit that of all those many pieces of work, this is the one I come back to the least. After being inspired by his Bury Bacharach collaboration, 1998's "Painted From Memory", Costello decided to craft an "easy listening", "crooning" album himself. I understand that he likes this sort of material (he has often added a low-key, piano ballad to most of his albums over the years), but for me he is at his best either spitting out visceral, frenetic Attractions-style rock or upbeat country blues/rock such as on 2004's "The Delivery Man". I don't really get Costello as Bing Crosby or "Wee Small Hours"-era Frank Sinatra.
This is an extremely laid-back, almost bleakly low-key jazz and classical-influenced album that doesn't really change in pace, ambience or atmosphere and and thus is, personally, quite difficult to get into. It has a great cover, one of his best, and because of that (shallow, I know), I always expect more from the album. However, it is sleepy, vocal and slow jazz piano, late night, mournful material for the duration of the album.
Basically it is an album of tracks like "Almost Blue" from "Imperial Bedroom". These songs are fine in isolation, but a whole album of songs in the style of the opener, "You Left Me In The Dark" or the so slow as to be almost comatose "When Did I Stop Dreaming", with its dead-slow jazzy brush-drumming, leave me just a little uninspired. Yes, I know some love Costello in this minimalist, piano and crooning voice fashion and I can certainly hear its appeal, but for me an entire album of it is just not to my taste. "When Did I Stop Dreaming" is definitely atmospheric, but it is not a song I want to return to very often, if at all. The same applies to the positively somnolent "You Turned To Me".
I feel Costello doesn't use instrumentation other than the stark, clunky piano enough. For example, at the end of "Still", The Brodsky Quartet play some lovely strings, but it is too little to late, and there is a simply sumptuous piece of saxophone on the beautiful "Let Me Tell You About Her". The final track, the jazzy, pulsating "Impatience" completely bucks the trend with its Latin syncopations, however. Some would say "about time too".
"Someone Took The Words Away" is probably my favourite on the album. It also features some subtle background saxophone. Look, maybe I am being a little harsh, because it is without any doubt a finely crafted and highly credible album. Songs like "Fallen" and "When It Sings" are nice songs, on their own. I also have to say that the album does get into your consciousness after a while, once you have submitted to its mood. "Can You Be True?" is simply a beautiful song. Fair play to Costello for following his muse and dong exactly what he wanted to do, though. As I said, the material is of a high quality but it just doesn't satisfy me in the way that many of his other albums do. That doesn't mean others won't love it. I have tried to describe this album as it comes over to me, which is a personal thing. Others may feel completely different. I still love parts of it and understand where it is coming from.
- October 11, 2018