We’re entering the time of year that, to me, is the most miserable. Firstly, the joy and cheer and what not of the holiday season has finally come to a halt, and we’re left with major let down. Secondly, the weather outside is frightful. In my home state of Oregon, it’s cold and rainy . Not just ordinary rain mind you – rain that was snow when it left the cloud. These raindrops are huge, and cold. Yes, January and February are miserable months. Luckily, we still have music – and i have the album that’s absolutely perfect for Winter – Elvis Costello’s North.
North is a soft and mellow sounding album.
If you’re used to Elvis Costello’s rock and roll style, you might be surprised to hear that most of North’s tracks are traditional jazz ballads. North is not Pump It Up, Veronica, Allison, or even Radio Radio. Instrumentally, all the songs are pretty minimalistic – consisting mostly of piano, drums, and maybe a few horns and strings – but no guitars.
The minimalist jazz ballads really are perfect for a night home, as you sip hot cocoa or drink wine. I like to listen to North while writing on a rainy night, looking out through a window at the deserted street (a street that just a few weeks ago was crowded with Christmas shoppers and pretty lights). North really is perfect for winter in this way – as the minimalist, slower songs mimic the winter season and give ambiance to a cold night.
You Left me in the Dark…
Lyrically – Costello starts off the album with a couple of outright sad songs about his divorce. “You Left Me in the Dark,” and “Someone Took the Words Away,” seems less like two individual songs, and more like two sections of the same song. The first part, “You Left Me in the Dark Again,” describes a man who wakes up one day to find their lover gone. This serves as a the source of the pain you see in the next two songs. “
You Left Me in the Dark Again” also hints what depression does to a creative mind – with the use of cliches. The song even starts out with a cliche (See how the elements obey / Eyes of Blue / Skies turn Grey) as a way of describing the mood of the singer. We even get the line “Allowing myself one more cliche /the last hurrah / The first bouquet.” This gives us sense that the singer knows their creative juices are being overrun by their feelings, and thus they turn to rundown, overused phrases instead of bright, new intelligent thoughts.
Someone Took the Words Away
The second part of this alleged two part song, “Someone Took the Words Away,” describes how this depression impacts the singer’s creativity. As a writer – I can relate. When I’m depressed, sometimes the last thing I want to do is write. There are sometimes I just can’t. It’s a horrific feeling – a feeling of self doubt and lack of worth. Costello describes this feeling perfectly.
True – I already show that “You Left Me In the Dark” already hints at the impact of depression on creativity, but “Someone Took the Words Away” really focuses and expounds upon the subject.
I’ve already mentioned the minimalistic sounds of the album. This minimalism truly lends itself to this song particularly well. We start off with a clanging high hat, which sounds like it might be a little further from the microphone than ideal – but this works well! The distant high hat reminds us of lost memories and feelings. It makes us long for things that are distant to us both in time and in space – like a lover gone from our lives.
The extended horn solo at the end also expresses the idea of lost creativity. Don’t get me wrong – the horn was played beautifully – but it serves as proof that no more words can be said – the horn takes the vocals away from us. The horn player took the words away.
Wait – why are depressing songs perfect for winter?
Before I go on – this is probably a good question to answer. When the skies are grey and we’re cooped up indoors, it gets depressing. When we’re depressed – it just feels good to listen to sad music. I don’t know if it’s healthy or not. Some studies and some experts say yes. Elton John even sings about this very subject. So listening to a couple songs about a lost love might just be what we need in the depths of winter.
North has way more than just the two sad songs. In fact, the majority of the tracks on North are rather sad. “When Did I Stop Dreaming?” describes another aspect of his divorce, as does “Fallen.” “When it Sings” and “When Green Eyes turn Blue” gives us a glimpse of life maybe a month before the initial break up – as well as the emotional battle between the pain of staying and the pain of leaving.
There’s also “You Turned to Me” which describes a break up conversation. Probably the most heart wrenching moment on the album comes from this song. The Lyrics, “Just as I began to say / It’s never worth the price you pay” might seem neutral, but the melody behind the lyrics just hurts. The first line gives us an upbeat which makes us think of optimism and hope, but the second line brings us back down with a downbeat and a minor key. But don’t take my word for it – listen to it yourself.
See what I mean? Ugg, heart wrenching. My point in saying all of this – as winter is a depressing time of the year, we need depressing music. That’s the main reason why Elvis Costello’s North is perfect for winter.
Don’t worry – there’s a couple happy songs
Seven songs into the album, we get a happy love song. Still has a melody reminiscent of a 1950s doo wop group, coupled with a classical stylings of the Brodsky String Quartet. The pairing works well, but add the lyrics and you get perhaps one of the best love ballads ever written.
Speaking of lyrics, the first verse of “Still,” encourages you to say “damn the rain,” and go out into the elements with the one you love. Consider this:
These few lines I’ll devote© 2003 – DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON
To a marvelous girl covered up with my coat
Pull it up to your chin
I’ll hold you until the day will begin
Swoon! Seriously, this feels like a scene from a romantic comedy. Of course. “Still” is not the only happy song – as the song “Can You be True?” explores the giddy feelings and optimism of a new relationship. Once more, these happy songs act as a nice palette cleanser to the sad songs we hear in the first half of the album.
There’s even a comical song…
Yes, “Can You be True” borders on giddy – but “Let Me Tell You About Her,” really dives into giddiness. Costello paints a picture of someone who just won’t shut up about their new love. Lines such as “Friends now regard me with indulgent smiles / But when I start to sing they run for miles”
The idea of someone who won’t shut up about a new romance certainly is something we’ve all seen – and some of us have even been on the giving end of this situation. So “Let Me Tell You About Her” gives us something to relate to. We chuckle at our own experiences, and this warms our hearts. There’s worst things to experience, than a warm heart on a cold, winter’s day. After all, the perfect album for winter should warm your heart.
“I’m In the Mood Again”
With “I’m in the Mood Again” you get a story of a man, walking through New York City on a rainy day. The man is in a blissful love coma. Despite the fact he can’t afford the wares in the store windows he passes, he feels like the richest man in the world. Perhaps he is – after all the turmoil of losing a lover, he finds someone new and exciting.
Vocally – we might have the best track on the album. While Costello’s baritone voice haunts us throughout the album, he seems especially on point in “I’m in the Mood Again.” Coupled with deep, but simple notes plunked on a piano – yeah – there’s that warm feeling I mentioned earlier.
Considering the sad, love loss / divorce tracks at the beginning of North, ending with “I’m in the Mood Again” adds a depth to the album. “I’m in the Mood Again” shows us life when the joys of a new love overshadow the pains of an old heartbreak. The song makes us see that North is about death and rebirth. Really, isn’t that what winter is about? Sure, we hunker down as the world outside seems cold and dead – but the warmth of spring, the annual rebirth of the world, is just around the corner. That, my dear friends, is why North by Elvis Costello is the perfect album for winter.