A fussy man heading north. (Courtesy photo)

If there has been one consistent criticism leveled at Elvis Costello over his frequently brilliant 26-year recording career, it's that he tends to be too fussy - hiding his true intentions behind cryptic code language, and substituting smart-ass cleverness for clarity.

With that in mind, Costello's new album, North, a painfully earnest collection of piano ballads, should be the perfect answer to his detractors. Never has Costello sounded so naked, so heart-on-his-sleeve sincere, so easy to decipher. Unfortunately, neither has he ever sounded so deadly dull.

All the songs for North were written by Costello at the piano in a quick creative burst. They document the recent end of his 16-year marriage to Cait O'Riordan, and hint at the blossoming of new love, which he has found with Canadian jazz chanteuse Diana Krall.

You can tell that North is meant to be a song cycle, not because the compositions take you on a musical journey, but because their slow, meandering tunes all run together in your mind, even after repeated listenings. Like Costello's 1992 pseudo-classical foray, The Juliet Letters, this album brings out the worst in his singing: pompous and self-important where he has so often been soulful and incisive.


Elvis Costello
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Costello mined this turf more successfully with Painted From Memory, his elegant 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach. On that disc, his gloomy ruminations on the sunset of a love affair were set to finely crafted melodies and counterbalanced by Bacharach's colorful sonic details. Here, Costello manages to make even gifted pianist Steve Nieve sound listless.

It's not really an issue of Costello going soft, because as much as early fans choose to peg him as the vengeful, pigeontoed malcontent of New Wave, you can find gorgeous ballads on his records as far back as 1981's Trust. In its own way, North is as bold as anything Costello has ever recorded, because its Broadway-derived sensibilities are so at odds with everything currently on the charts.

But no one has ever questioned Costello's commitment to his musical vision. North's great weakness is not lack of commitment; it is lack of inspiration. •


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