Nearly four years ago in a Gaineville, Georgia thrift store we found a cache of one dollar CDs that beckoned. Among the delights to be had were a pair of Elvis Costello albums of late [for me] vintage. I have scant releases past the line in the sand for me that was “Blood + Chocolate.” I have long maintained that EC lost much of his luster for me following that release, though the two concerts that I have seen subsequently, were completely convincing, even as they were formed partially from this later body of work that had failed to make a dent in my attention. Last week, while picking something to hear on my long-sh commute to work, I opted for the two Elvis Costello albums that I probably gave a single listen to back at the time of purchase. What I discovered several years later was such a violently contrasting experience, that I decided quickly that it would become the basis for the most schizophrenic Steel Cage Match® ever. First up: from 2003 – Elvis Costello’s “North.”
Elvis Costello: North US CD 
- You Left Me In The Dark
- Someone Took The Words Away
- When Did I Stop Dreaming?
- You Turned To Me
- When It Sings
- Let Me Tell You About Her
- Can You Be True?
- When Green Eyes Turn Blue
- I’m In The Mood Again
- North [DL]
2003 is notable for being the year that Elvis Costello married his third wife, jazz pianist Diana Krall. It was also notable for being the year where Mr. Costello got the ill-starred idea in his head that he needed to prove himself to his new paramour that he could operate in jazz as well. It was not an idea I would have slapped down on the face of it. After all, in 1997 I thoroughly enjoyed Costello’s link up with Burt Bacharach; “God Give Me Strength” on the OST to the interesting roman à clef Carole King non-biopic “Grace of My Heart.” When they followed up the next year, the resulting album was a credit to each of their careers.
It was fascinating hearing Costello; a wordsmith nonpareil writing lyrics for Burt Bacharach; a brilliant songwriter whose output lived or died on the caliber of the words his chosen lyricists of the day provided. When it was Hal David, the result was brilliant, complex pop whose musical sophistication belied the ease with which their songs became part of the pop landscape and the standard by which MOR pop was measured. When Bacharach co-wrote with his wife, Carole Bayer Sager in the eighties the results were greeting-card homilies where Bacharach’s talent for making the complex sound easy were squandered on the facile platitudes that Sager proffered as lyrics.
What “North” indisputably proved was that the converse could also be true. The best lyricist in the world, attempting jazz but left to his own devices as writer/producer/arranger could easily craft a stultifyingly dull album of meandering non-melodies that lacked all forms of tension and release necessary for the best pop. Quite frankly, “North” was nearly impossible to listen to and maintain focus on it. The evasive melodies have all of the complexity of a young man showing off his technical ability without managing to deliver any transcendence. Just when your mind anticipates a hook about to occur naturally, Costello made double dog sure to twist 180 degrees in another direction entirely. Leaving his insubstantial and vaporous melodic attempts evaporating before the ink was dry on the score.
The album is diabolical for having no rhythmic impetus at all. Some might consider rhythm and repetition a crutch in popular music. I am not one of those people. Hearing the normally loquacious Costello pare his lyrics here down to besotted love paeans to the wonderful, I’m sure, Ms. Krall did nothing for me. So what we had delivered here was an album bereft of hooks or strong melodies, yet full of the simplest and most straightforward [albeit dull, if personal] lyrics Costello ever put to wax. In fairness, only “Still” manages to get up a smoky, late night head of steam and deliver the romantic, sophisticated goods he was aiming for. Also, the cover/booklet design was superb. At least some of that Deutsche Grammphon cash got put to good use.
But that does not excuse the other ten clinkers that make listening to this album a godawful chore with almost zero payback. Worse yet, the album had a “bonus track” that was a DL title track, left off of the proper release. I’d like to say that It was good or even bad, but since it was a WMA file incompatible with Macintosh computers, I’ll never had the “pleasure.” In a cross platform world with dozens of standards that reach the widest possible audience, this sort of 90s Windows-centric hubris boils my blood further on top of the shabby art on display here!
Next: …Night + Day [and we’re not talking Cole Porter]
The charms of about 80% of what he has release since “Painted From Memory” is lost on me. A lot of money spent on a lot of albums that I don’t listen to and when I try it’s like, ”nope, still does nothing.”
In 2008 he hosted a tv show called “Spectacle” and I thoroughly enjoy every episode, even when the guest isn’t someone that I am inclined to run out and buy an album by.
Thank you Monk for those gracious words regarding Painted By Memory. It is the Costello album that seems to get lost when his his career is raked over, yet it is a diamond shining through the rough of his later (or is it really late middle) period. I rate it extremely high in my rundown of which EC albums I would listen to in descending order.
North is a bit of a curiosity though, it is extremely obvious why it exists and it is worth a listen to hear the kernel of some very good songs. But it is less an EC jazz album as it is a collection of cinematic pop songs. Best song on the album is track 2 Someone Took The Words Away. It shows a certain effortlessness in the writing and the cool jazz accompaniment doesn’t detract, although it might have benefitted for just one more verse in place of the rather long instrumental end.
The Sweetest Punch is a fine companion album.
Painted From Memory and Almost Blue are my go-tos for Mr. Costello. I am able to understand why, when Almost Blue was released, that his fans may have been scratching their heads. I think it is an exceptional album that time has been kinder to than a lot of his work.
I was a big EC fan @ one time. This was about the time I finally stopped getting any new albums by him & got rid of much of his post-1986 output. I did read his autobiography recently. He was very good writing about his father. However, he made a snide crack about Wreckless Eric that left a sour taste in my mouth. Looking @ the purchases you made about this time, I’m interested how you felt about the Sparks & Robyn Hitchcock discs.
diskojoe – I think we were all big EC fans at one time! It was hard not to be a fan with that tear of albums #1-5 being a solid phenomenon. Still, I gave “Brutal Youth” a listen this morning. Eh. Another big dud. Unmemorable songs, performances, arrangements, and production!
I immediately picture the normally gentile Painted From Memory lifting North over its head and slamming it to the canvas. An easy win for Burt and Co. North has not had so much as a single listen in my house since the week it was released.
I didn’t even rip my copy before selling it….
Tim – Don’t blame you a bit, there. The likelihood that you would come to see value in it in the future was pretty much nil.
Brian – Well, it got three listens in mine, thus far. I doubt there will be another before it goes in the discard pile.
I concur with Echo’s comments — I still really enjoy “Still” and “Someone Took the Words Away,” but an entire album without much in the way of rhythmic elements gets old quick. Some of the songs on North are more than up for someone else to do a better cover, but ultimately it was a quite dull and disappointing album. Although I haven’t gone for everything EC has released since (very little of it, in fact), I’ll still go to any and all concerts of his that I can, as he (especially in recent years) puts on a hell of a good show with a tight band (not unlike, but completely different to, Joe Jackson).
I confess I haven’t even checked out the last two albums, and there’s quite a few post-The Delivery Man that will need to re-appraisal, but of course a married and content artist is not the same man as an single (or post-breakup) man with issues. EC seems to be comfortable performing live these days (a very far cry from the earliest of his concerts I attended!), but I still long for the edgy melodies and playful word-work of yer actual Trust and the like.
chasinvictoria -It’s not so much the lack of rhythm that slays it for me, but the meandering, evasive melodies. As if he had something to prove by obsessively avoiding the mathematically proven chord sequences your mind maps out of the melodic clues he set the listener up for; then leaves them hanging as he darts off in exactly the wrong direction.