Ever since I decided to do a Top 10 Records of 2000-2010 list, I knew there’d come a day when I had to write about this album. One of my all-time favorite albums by one of my all-time favorite musicians. And I knew that I’d struggle. My love for this record is too hard to put into words, its songs too firmly entrenched in the emotional fabric of my life. It’s also an album that, even among Elvis Costello diehards, has been unfairly derided over the last decade, written off as a mere genre exercise or some sort of marital compromise (the album famously heralded his relationship with jazz chanteuse Diana Krall), missing the point of what is actually a stunning collection of songs. It’s a hard record to write about, so I decided I’d call in some outside help.
Kevin Davis is the author of Mystery Pill. He’s also one of two people with whom I’ve been able to gush about North (the other being Wise Up Ghost/The Roots co-producer Steven Mandel), as well as being a brilliant music writer. I was psyched beyond belief when he agreed to write about the album for this blog, and he didn’t disappoint, delivering an eloquent, insightful and unique look at the album. It’s the review that North should have gotten when it first came out, back in 2003. Without further ado, I now cede the floor to KD. Take it away, Kev.
This is a guest post about Elvis Costello’s North, and its very existence (the post’s, not the album’s) is a wonder owing to the miracle of technology and online networking—not simply because blog posts in general would cease to exist in the absence of the internet (duh), but because in a world without message boards, a chance meeting between two individuals who would each dare place this record on any kind of “favorite albums” list would be about as likely as two people who’ve each on separate occasions won the Powerball jackpot accidentally sitting next to each other on the bus.
It is truly a record with few disciples– even the most rabid Costello admirers regularly place it at the butt end of their best-to-worst lists, where it usually shares real estate with 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World (which Costello has himself on several occasions acknowledged as the worst record he ever made) and 1981’s Almost Blue, a record of country-and-western covers that nobody likes except for me and Stephen Thomas Erlewine from the All Music Guide. Yet unlike Cruel World (a program of semi-decent pop tunes buried under a garish mess of drum reverb and horn arrangements) or Almost Blue (a faithful and impassioned genre exercise but ultimately just that), North is neither a dated aesthetic mishap nor a bold-spirited flight of fancy, two categories of record which typically account for many of the commonly lower-ranking moments in the catalogs of veteran musicians. To the contrary, North represents a genuine creative moment in the life of the artist which in many ways signifies the most fully realized work of his career, and in that light it becomes a fascinating case study in perceptive phenomena, one which I admit will probably make more sense once I’ve explained the record a bit, so I’ll do that now.
Elvis Costello released North in September, 2003, about three months before he would exchange vows with idiosyncratic jazz vocalist and pianist Diana Krall, to whom it is commonly accepted that North was composed both musically and topically as a sort of ode. Essentially a program of romantic ballads written on piano and arranged for small jazz ensemble, it’s precisely the type of record that Blood and Chocolate fans who’d boycotted 2001’s For the Stars (a collaboration with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter) and heralded 2002’s When I Was Cruel as a return to form were hoping he’d never make again, and the fact that the whole project seemed to exist either as a result or in the service of domesticity left—as it tends to—a sour taste in the mouths of those well enough acquainted with Costello’s work to know how good unhappiness had typically been for his art. None of which is to say that this type of jazz-influenced writing was entirely new to the man’s discography; some of even his earliest released demos reflect a fondness for the types of chord patterns and voicings he would eventually use on North, and his career path is littered with a handful of well-known hits (“Almost Blue,” “Shipbuilding,” his cover of Charles Aznavour’s “She”) not terribly far outside of North’s ballpark. The key difference is that the songwriting on all of those records up to and including 1999’s Painted From Memory (an album of collaborations with Burt Bacharach which is probably North’s closest identifiable ancestor), for all their varied stylistic digressions, ultimately swayed in the direction of familiar pop conventions, an assertion which I believe a listen to any one of Costello’s many career-spanning compilations—where songs like “Shipbuilding” will stand shoulder to shoulder with relentless rock tirades like “Pump It Up” and ruminative acoustic numbers like “Indoor Fireworks”—will bear out. North, by contrast, may be the first record of Costello’s career to dispense with these conventions completely (the only possible exception being 1993’s Brodsky Quartet collaboration The Juliet Letters, a record so shot through with signature Costello snark that it was easy to account mentally for the difference), and it’s in this small, seemingly insignificant chasm that the record seemed to lose most listeners.
To many fans, I suspect the difficulty of North, insofar as it extends beyond simply finding it lame any time a rock musician records an album of sentimental ballads, has to do with seeing a genre of music known for its snaky, off-center melodic language being relinquished to a songwriter known specifically for his own snaky, off-center melodic language, and struggling to make sense of how he makes use of the circumstance. A consistent thread running through many of the early reviews of North seemed to be a frustration with its lack of simple, everyday musicality; The AV Club said it was “bereft of melody” and called it “background music,” while Pitchfork lamented how Costello had “eschewed all sense of melody and humor in favor of rambling, mock-jazz noodling.” The word “noodling” is a tip-off, because it’s telling of how most jazz music (not entirely unfairly) sounds to people who haven’t invested the time in learning its language—notes flying aimlessly around the scale, rarely taking familiar melodic shapes and even more rarely achieving satisfying resolutions. Same deal with “mock-jazz,” which is either an implication that the record is too soft and syrupy to qualify as actual jazz (hopefully that’s not what he meant, because you miss out on a lot of great jazz if you disqualify soft and syrupy), or a comment on Costello having stepped so far outside of the mold the writer had carved for him in his own mind that anything he might attempt in said genre could, at best, only ever be a glorified game of dress-up. (That or it was just the kind of trite put-down reviewers frequently lean on when they dislike a record but don’t have anything meaningful to say about it, which I suppose is the most likely scenario.)
In any case, I’ve digressed. The purpose of all of this is not to retroactively slam these reviewers, but to prove the point that detractors of this record have historically spoken of it using terms—“background music,” “noodling,” “bereft of melody”—that reflect common objections to jazz music in general, and speak more to the record’s inability to transcend the genre rather than its capacity for functioning within its parameters, a question many people who poo-poo on this record more often than not leave unanswered. Which misses the point, because North is very specifically a record about not violating a certain set of musical rules—rules which Costello bends and twists to do his bidding, I will concede, but ones which he also upholds with a type of honor that straddles the line between plain academic tribute and hushed, spiritual reverence. This is clearly music Costello loves; a few months before North’s release, he was a guest on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR, where he performed a repertoire of standards like “At Last” and “They Didn’t Believe Me” with a few originals sprinkled in for flavor. It’s a stunning performance, and between songs Costello reminisces on how so many songs from that era are etched on his brain from hearing his father sing them (Costello’s dad, Ross MacManus, was a trumpeter and singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra, a popular group during the 1940’s big band era), and as such he treats with the same kind of care with which one might treat a family heirloom.
To me, that care is one of the key differences between North and Costello’s other genre exercises like Almost Blue and Kojak Variety; for as faithful as those records were to their mother styles, there was also a sense of abandon to them, which at times attained a pure joy that accounted for some truly fantastic moments, but more often settled for a kind of slapdash imprecision that accounted for average ones. Even The Juliet Letters, comparatively meticulous and precise by any standard, had a feel of grand theater to it, with Costello writing primarily in character and divesting himself from his performance in a way that emphasizes the spectacle of the stories but also feels kind of cold.
North, then, not only shows Costello showcasing his affection for and his command over a particular form of songwriting from his youth, but is also his warmest, most intimate record to date, owing largely to the atypically restrained (something which has become less atypical as Costello has gotten older) vocal performance and the lack of acrobatic wordplay that had traditionally served as a barricade between the singer’s audience and his raw, unfiltered soul. Which isn’t to say the record is any less smart or clever as a result; in the most Bacharach-like tune on the album, “Let Me Tell You About Her,” Costello sings, “Friends now regard me with indulgent smiles/But when I start to speak, they run for miles,” with a kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge over an accented piano rhythm that seems to acknowledge to the listener that falling in love has turned him into something of a bumbling goofball (when I saw him play live in 2004, he comically turned to the crowd after that lyric with a bemused look on his face, as if to say, “now don’t you go running away, too”). Anyone who truly believed this record arrived bereft of any melodic highlights must have received a defective disc which omitted this song, because it’s a tour de force—it stands, in my opinion, with some of the great pop standard tunes of any era and certainly with some of the great Costello tunes, and in another time and place could have been a definitive work for Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra or any other interpreter of standard whom we typically venerate with greatest-of-all-time-type honors.
Not every song on North is that immediately catchy, at least not in the sense that the melody leaps out of the song and invites you to dance with it, but across eleven songs (twelve if you include the charming title/bonus track, which I love so much that it pains me to admit that Costello was right to omit from the record for thematic reasons), the sense of harmony and fluidity in these songs is at once beautiful and challenging—the way the bridge passage in “You Turned to Me” moves from subdued, ear-candy crooning (“to turn these lights back on…”) to the fractured, austere refrain (“it’s never worth/the price you pay”); the way the sense of minor-key sorrow pervading the first verse of “Can You Be True?” is completely deflated by a major-key change on the resolution line (“till you tell me/my darling…”); even the immense volume of mood conveyed by the very first piano/voice notes on the record after the brief orchestral prelude (“see how the elements obey…”), which immediately establish the sense of time and place dominant across this album, a place not terribly dissimilar to the kinds of brokenhearted after-hours joints Tom Waits was hitting up on The Heart of Saturday Night, though presumably in a better part of town.
I bought North on the day it was released in 2003, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t take a few listens to sink in, and a few more before I realized it was among my favorite records of Costello’s, and a few more still before I realized it was among my favorite records in my whole collection. But I was struck from the very first listen by how authentically cinematic it was, which I don’t think is the same thing as being theatrical; North is not performance art, but it is the type of record from which you could extract a five-second snippet from any part of it and be immediately flooded with mental pictures, probably ones not all unlike the one on the album cover—rain-soaked, alone, hobbling the streets en route either to meet up with the love of your life at a bar, or seek refuge on a barstool at said bar and cry her away (Costello does both at various points on North). Either way, the bar in question has a piano player who wears a nice suit, takes requests for Tony Bennett songs, and stays on the clock as long as there’s someone around to listen.
Truth be told North was probably the first vocal jazz album I really loved, and the fact that it came out while jazz as a musical concept was still relatively mysterious to me probably accounts for at least some of why I still feel an intense sense of discovery whenever I play it, not necessarily always hearing new things (it is and was designed to be a sparse, minimally decorated work, and thus the kinds of small production flourishes that leap off a record like, say, Imperial Bedroom don’t take days or months or years to reveal themselves here), but continually finding myself surprised by things which I know are coming, which is a significant part of what makes North such a durable record for me. Early critics who complained that the record was bland and too “samey” were challenging the superficial elements of the production but erroneously placing the burden of that challenge on the songwriting, holding the nuts and bolts of Costello’s craftsmanship accountable for their feeling that the overall presentation of the album was too static. But it’s not a static work because of the songwriting; it’s static, again, because all the songs were deliberately orchestrated to sound a certain way, such that 100% of the record’s dynamism comes not in spite of but precisely in the songwriting, and in the inherent qualities—rather than the superficial dressings—of the performances.
Which are flawless. Costello’s famously overbearing vibrato is kept in such good check here, perhaps the first album of his career where it feels conditioned enough to be a virtue rather than a tic. His supporting musicians encompass his longtime right-hand man Steve Nieve on piano (Costello stands in on “Let Me Tell You About Her” and album closer “I’m in the Mood Again”), alto sax legend Lee Konitz (whose solo at the end of “Someone Took the Words Away” would probably rank in the top ten instrumental passages I’d take with me to a desert island), as well as a handful of session pros who completely transcend the stereotype (Lew Soloff’s flugelhorn solo at the end of “Let Me Tell You About Her” would not unlikely be on that same list). And the production touches are so nonintrusive that you could almost add crowd noise between songs and a few clinking glass effects and pass it off as a live album. It absolutely has that same warmth, that same presence.
There’s an endless list of details I would love to elaborate on but I’ve gone on long enough—everybody’s busy and there are a lot more posts on this site that you should be getting around to reading when you’re done with this one. But be sure to check out whatever link Jorge inevitably shares to go along with this post—it will undoubtedly be a piece of complex, beautiful music that has been underappreciated by even this man’s most loyal fans for over a decade now, and it’s time for the madness to stop. North is music that Elvis Costello inherited, music he married into, and music that over the years has become his as much as any that he ever made with an electric guitar. Dim the lights and have a listen.
Wasn’t that awesome? If you want to read more of Kevin’s writing– and who wouldn’t?– be sure to check out his book, which you can purchase here or at Amazon if you want it for your e-reader. You can also check out his blog— and be sure to pester him to update it more often. Double-also, you can listen to the podcast we recorded a while ago, where we discussed his book as well as this very album and other melomaniac minutiae. Finally, the other albums in the ever-so-slow Top 10 of the 2000s countdown can be found here.