Of the many twists and turns that Elvis Costello has taken following his muse, North is one path taken that feels like a missed opportunity. Elvis has proven throughout the years that he can write heart-wrenching ballads and elegant love songs on a par with some of the 20th-century’s finest composers, and by that I mean not just all composers, not just those contained within the rock idiom. The songs for this album are restrained and subtle, which may have been exactly what Elvis was attempting but still doesn’t make for the most invigorating listening.
North works best when listened to all at once as an atmospheric backdrop to other activities. In that context, it spins by amiably and the listener can enjoy the luxurious melodies and the tasteful accompaniment without putting too much work into it. But, on a song-by-song basis, it lacks the kind of animation and spunk that Elvis has brought to just about every other project with which he’s been involved. I listen to the album once in a while, but the fact that it fades into the background behind whatever else might be occupying my time makes it rare among Costello albums.
The once song that, for me, truly stands out is “Fallen.” Which might seem odd because it might be the most muted track on the album. Elvis sings in hushed tones for much of the track, as if afraid to let his emotions go unchecked. The instrumentation is relatively spare as well, but that works in its favor considering that Steve Nieve is on board. His timing is just right; the spaces he leaves in between his piano chords speak volumes. The orchestration makes a quick appearance in the second half of the song and then falls away, leaving the lonely narrator to his current state of bemused isolation.
Keeping with the less-is-more theme, Costello’s lyrics contain relatively few words but manage to say a whole lot. The narrator walks through a beautiful fall scene and muses on the passing time, how he once ran roughshod over everything is his path but now sees that the tables have turned on him: “But now I clearly see how cruel the young can be.” This change of fortunes was brought on by the collapse of his ideals: “And I believed that life was wonderful/Right up to the moment when love went wrong.”
The title of the song can be viewed many different ways. We can fall in love or fall from grace. I feel like this character is somewhere in between the two extremes, wounded from past experiences but starting on the road to recovery, a little tentative but with hope tugging at his heart. “Fallen” captures this nether region in achingly lovely fashion, a song that can’t help but breaking out from the pack despite all of its restraint.
(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)
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