By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
North, by contrast, is almost entirely apolitical, ahistorical and asocial. Hermetically sealed with a kiss, it excludes all non-romantic concerns. That’s fine — no one’s confiscating your copy of “Oliver’s Army” or “Shipbuilding.” The course of love isn’t smooth throughout these songs, but the power struggles and recriminations that mark Costello’s best-known lyrics are largely absent. Take “Let Me Tell You About Her,” in which he doesn’t: “Gentlemen don’t speak of it, and this one never will.” Fairly gallant, from someone who long ago admitted stirring up trouble in his personal life to generate raw material for songs.
This could be the first Elvis Costello album that is richer musically than lyrically. North isn’t exactly an attempt to “go legit” — Deutsche Grammophon aside — but it’s too ambitious to work as adult-contemporary wallpaper. Except for some overripe introductions, Costello uses the orchestral palette with restraint, framing a small combo of ex-Attraction Steve Nieve, jazz drummer Peter Erskine and various bassists. The closest comparison may be to the misty, muted settings Alex Stordahl wove for Sinatra at his post-Dorsey crooniest.
Next to the vernacular ease of Newman’s melodies, Costello’s are wildly convoluted, backed with as many tricky harmonic shifts as Armed Forces had puns. The Great American Songbook is in the mix, but so are Schubert, Sondheim and Joni Mitchell. When these songs falter, it’s less often the fault of the tunes or the words themselves than the way they’re combined. Strained diction (“Wits may sharpen up/their cuts and clever flays”) and rhymes that don’t merit being called “off” (“fracture”/“statue”?) might whip by unnoticeably at Get Happy!tempos, but in a carefully sung ballad they’re harder to ignore.
When everything clicks, however, North isn’t just respectable, it’s moving. “Fallen,” a thematic cousin to Vernon Duke’s “Autumn Leaves,” rambles through “the amber and the burnished gold” with a well-placed bloom of strings after the bridge. The closing “In the Mood Again,” just Costello at the piano and an atmospheric vibraphone, shoots down several of the above generalizations. Formally, it’s as tight as any Broadway warhorse, and its Manhattan setting and cautious optimism offer the album’s sole hint that the world contains more than two people. Think Bruce’s The Rising filtered though the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally.
“Someone Took the Words Away,” fittingly, has the disc’s best purely instrumental passage, an inventive sax solo couched in strings, à la some high-toned Norman Granz production. Without checking the credits, I’d never have guessed the player: Lennie Tristano sideman and cool-jazz icon Lee Konitz. There’s a whiff of cultural striving about some of Costello’s recent teamings, notably his iffy album with soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, though there’s no doubting his respect for the musicians he works with. But the Konitz solo is no look-who-I-know (or who-I-can-afford) cameo; it’s a generous place in the spotlight for an underappreciated master. Now that’s class.