- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

Elvis Costello

North

Deutsche Grammophon

Elvis Costello has … zzzzzz … recorded another collection of … zzzzz … cabaret ballads. It’s called “North,” and it makes me wish I were East, West or South, anywhere but “North.”



Do not, under any circumstances, listen to “North” while operating machinery or motor vehicles. It’s the aural equivalent of taking a Xanax and then downing a bottle of red wine.

As someone who holds Mr. Costello in the highest regard, I wasn’t particularly jazzed by the idea that the singer-songwriter was returning to the self-indulgent mood of “The Juliet Letters,” his 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, and “Painted From Memory,” his post-hip alliance with Burt Bacharach in 1998.

This after a scorching return to rock form with last year’s “When I Was Cruel.”

But return to the chamber Mr. Costello has done, gushing undying love to his new flame, the Canadian jazz-pop singer Diana Krall. “It’s strange to finally find myself so tongue-tied / A change has come over me / I’m powerless to express / Everything I know but cannot speak / And if I try my voice will break,” he croons on “Someone Took the Words Away.”

Wonder who that someone is?

“Every single time I approached despair / I thought of your name and you were there,” he surges lovingly on “When Green Eyes Turn Blue.”

It’s portentously announced in the liner notes that “North” was “composed, arranged and conducted by Elvis Costello,” and each section of the 11-song cycle is minimalistically crafted in the style of old Broadway book or soft jazz-pop, with sporadic murmurs from brass and strings.

For songs that sound so quietly personal and private, Mr. Costello oversells every song, singing in a quavering vibrato that becomes gratingly thick and showy.

His longtime keyboard associate, Steve Nieve, plays on every track save for a pair, and drummer Peter Erskine lightly brushes a snare drum. The Brodsky Quartet appears on the album’s best track, “Still,” rescued by a gracefully simple melody.

After repeated listens, you’ll be hard-pressed to distinguish one song from the next: It all wafts together into one soporific cloud of lounge smoke.

“Some things are too personal / Too intimate to spill / And gentlemen don’t speak of them / And this never will,” Mr. Costello sings on “Let Me Tell You About Her.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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