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Bad muse affairs
Elvis Costello goes south on North

Fans of Elvis Costello are in for a tough year. The durable singer/songwriter plans to follow his dull new album North (Deutsche Grammophon) with a late 2004 release of orchestral pieces he wrote for an Italian production of the ballet A Midsummer Nightís Dream and recorded with Michael Tilson-Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. This is bad news for both lovers of Costelloís sharp pop music and of orchestras.

On North Costello canít make a 14-piece band sound more interesting than a pallbearerís suit, subduing the normally vivid colors of horns, reeds, woodwinds, and vibraphone into a charcoal background for his limpid crooning. The best that can be said for this album ó which is the first complete botch-up of Costelloís 27-year career and comfortably bears the adjectives "pretentious" and "contemptible" ó is that when Costello is singing at his most artful on its 11 numbing numbers, he manages a fair imitation of a good jazz singerís ability to mimic the phrasing of a trumpet, albeit without much range or flexibility. The albumís peak comes when Lew Soloff nearly saves the maudlin love song "Let Me Tell You About Her" with a lovely flugelhorn solo that sidesteps the dead-ass delivery and clichés of Costelloís lyrics, which are full of rolling eyes, gentlemen not speaking of intimacies, and other stuff that 1930s parlor romances are made of.

Costello has long been an experimenter ó a masterful pop craftsman who, after establishing himself as one of the best voices of í80s rock, sought inspiration by first exploring country music and then analyzing the architecture of the great American songbook as designed by George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. The latter resulted in his collaboration with Burt Bacharach, 1998ís Painted from Memory (Mercury). Heís also examined classical music as a route for growth, collaborating with the Brodsky Quartet on the 1993 song cycle The Juliet Letters (Warner Bros.) and with opera singer Anne Sophie von Otter in a program of standards and originals on For the Stars (DG, 2001). With North, Costello seems to be searching for a middle ground where his cocktail jazz muse might relax with its classically trained sister. Instead, heís turned both into cold, lifeless harpies.

The tunes on North also compose a cycle that begins with the heartbreak of a lost love and ends with the kindling of a new romance. It seems inspired by Costelloís break-up with his wife, ex-Pogue Cait OíRiordan, and the relationship heís taken up with the jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall. Costello has said that the opening number, "You Left Me in the Dark," is not about a divorce but about bereavement. Either way, itís given a supper-club treatment that seems like satire, with Costelloís voice and Steve Nieveís piano playing cutesy cat-and-mouse games and the verses drowning in self-pity.

By omitting hooks and choruses, Costello telegraphs the notion that this group of songs is art, not pop. But decent art is never as inexplicably colorless or deadpan as North, which he would know if he checked his creative compass. Perhaps Costello has fallen in love with the smell of his own farts and expects us to relish them, too. Or at least forgotten what heís learned from listening to the arrangements of Duke Ellington and Nelson Riddle and found a soft spot in his heart for Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis that heís determined to share. Even the charts for the songs on which Costello is accompanied only by Nieveís piano are drab, with little room for melodies save for those in Costelloís vocal performances. Itís as if he wants nothing to distract from his whining on the discís first half, or his cautious optimism in the second. As a listener, stuck in the thick of this mess, one prays for sonic distractions ó really, just interesting passages ó that never come.

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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