There aren't many artists who can go through as many stylistic changes as Elvis Costello and still maintain a sizable and loyal following. Since Costello emerged, he's been (to name just a few) a surly, acid-tongued rocker; a sardonic but heartfelt rootsy singer-songwriter; and an elegant song stylist performing in tandem with Burt Bacharach and Tony Bennett. He's also appeared on albums paying homage to influences as diverse as jazz giant Charles Mingus and early-'60s R&B icon Arthur Alexander. For his latest, Costello temporarily forsakes the rock-and-roll sound that put him on the map for a set of refined, polished, old-school songs that stands proudly in tribute to another of his favorites, Frank Sinatra. Performing in contexts that range from just voice and piano to a 48-piece orchestra, Costello (who also arranged and conducted the orchestrations) applies his plaintive baritone to 11 reflective, lovelorn ballads whose collective intensity rivals that of Sinatra's romantic-angst-flavored conceptual classic Sings for Only the Lonely.
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North is even structured like a concept album in that it chronicles a disintegrating relationship. It begins with the achingly stark "You Left Me in the Dark"--where the strings swell and sigh like a distant storm brewing beneath lines like "Nothing I can do will make you stay/I am glad it will rain today"--and ends with the rumination "I'm in the Mood Again," which one might judge by its title to be an up-tempo swinger, but which is Costello's version of the last-call saloon song "One for My Baby," a tune that evokes a very early New York City morning when our sleepless hero still hasn't shaken the reverie of his heartbreak. Whereas some of Costello's most ambitious works have fallen flat (the awkwardly arty Juliet Letters, the overwrought Mighty Like a Rose), North--splendidly recorded, by the way--is a pleasure because Costello's musical aspirations don't outdistance his singular, affecting emotional directness.