CD Review: North by Elvis Costello

North heads straight south

Despite the album title, I found my attention heading south after about two minutes listening to North. At this point, I've heard the whole album several times over seven days. It remains a task to continue focusing my attention on any part of this record for more than a minute or two.

It does sound somewhat unique in his catalogue, with no whole album quite like it. It doesn't sound much at all like Painted From Memory or The Juliet Letters- two far superior albums on all levels. The closest thing would be the song "Almost Blue." The entire North album, however, does not add up to the third part of musical interest generated by the Imperial Bedroom classic.

For starters, this record has no discernible hooks. A whole Elvis album without a single strong hook? That's something of an achievement I suppose. I can't quite remember how any of these songs go- even while I am listening to them.

Broadly, Elvis has given us an incredibly generic jazz vocal album. I would never have thought he could make a bland record- yet here we are. None of these songs has any strong personality. It took Elvis Costello of anybody in the world to write "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" or "Shipbuilding."

A lot of hacks could have written these light, meandering puffs of nothing, though. They don't particularly develop and go anywhere, or lead to any kind of climax. Just he sings something for a few minutes then he quits- then starts another song that sounds just like it.

I didn't much care for Norah Jones album. It struck me as bland, and lacking in any unique sound at all. Even at that, however, it rates far above this similarly genred North album. Her album did have at least a couple of decently competent pop songs, with hooks that linger in your ear. Nothing like that on North.

More than anything, this record reminds me of all the bland, passionless jazzy pop albums that Van Morrison has made for the last 20 years or more.

On that ground, perhaps this will turn out to be the Elvis album for people who know they're supposed to like Elvis, but really mostly don't. Unlike most of his classics, they can put this album on in the background of their nice dinner party with the accountant friend and his wife.

Setting aside a couple of crappy albums of covers, North may eventually rate as the least interesting collection of original songs in Elvis career.

Folks, I'm the original Elvis Costello fan, faithful through new wave and ballads, country and classical. If he can't convince ME that this is worthwhile, then it really ain't much.

Obviously he's (quite understandably) enthralled by his hot jazz singer fiance, but I would have hoped that new love would inspire better songs. Perhaps we'll just have to wait for the tragic breakup for him to get any good songs out of the deal.

On top of which, the CD came with some lame encryption- though that may just be on the downloadable bonus track. For starters, this cost baby brother five minutes of his life cracking that in order to get his copy. Far worse, they're wanting top commercial dollar for a set of recordings ultimately clearly inferior to the mp3 files available on the net for free- though that may only have been an issue with the downloaded title track. In any case, it'd be a waste to spend $15 on disc you're unlikely to want to hear more than a couple of times.

Then there is the bonus download, the title song "North." You have to have a pin number from the cd, and then you have to download a goddam wma format file. This nothing song is SO not worth the bother.

Indeed, you really needn't bother with any of this, though. If you're a big Elvis fan, you'll need to hear this for yourself, I suppose. I recommend that you go p2p and look it up. You should probably start by downloading the last song, "I'm in the Mood Again." It's as good as any of them.


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