Elvis Costello

By - Oct 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Jon M. Gilbertson

ELVIS COSTELLO North Deutsche Grammophon www.elviscostello.com

As he grows older and perhaps wiser, Elvis Costello increasingly resembles another former enfant terrible from the UK: writer Martin Amis. Both sons of notable practitioners of their respective arts, both more famous than their fathers, they are almost embarrassingly skillful and variegated: Amis the novelist, reviewer, journalist; Costello the explorer of New Wave, Tin Pan Alley, country & western, rhythm & blues.

Costello’s latest album, North, finds him meditating in the gorgeously melancholy shadows once inhabited by Cole Porter, the Gershwins et al. He’s been there before, but never so deeply. His facility with the forms – particularly the alternately lush and spare arrangements, which include a horn nonet, the classically trained Brodsky Quartet, and Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve — recalls the clarion blurb on Amis’ last paperback, 2002’s The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000: “Is there anything Martin Amis can’t write about?”

Indeed. Is there any musical style Elvis Costello can’t master? More to the point, does a creative chameleon eventually forget or lose sight of what he’s best at? The most devoted Costello fan, asked to define the man’s essence, would reach for the early work, its electric guitars and tumbling wordplay.

Yet North deserves better than polite applause. Even more than Painted From Memory, Costello’s much-lauded collaboration with Burt Bacharach, these 11 songs weep with the admission of a romanticism usually thwarted by irony or buried in anger. From the desperation of “You Left Me in the Dark” to the serenity of “I’m in the Mood Again,” North is about passionately careful artistry. It is about Elvis Costello’s cracked but strong baritone register. It is about grace in the teeth of love.

Above all, North is about hopes: betrayed, dashed, renewed, fulfilled. The album represents the outpouring of a beating heart, not another notch in an artist’s impressive catalog.

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