LAST year's When I Was Cruel saw Costello on rocking, bile-spluttering form.

And now, in a typical act of contrariness, he returns with an album of crooning ballads orchestrated in the lush jazz style of Nat King Cole. If the packaging is smooth, the lyrics mix the barbed with the witty and the frankly ecstatic.

North chimes with the break-up of Costello's marriage to Cait O'Riordan and his new relationship with jazz singer Diana Krall. Some reviews have been startling in their hostility, and it is true that North takes work, especially as one lush songs laps into another. Also, Costello doesn't always have the voice to carry such languorous hymns to smooch.

However, perseverance brings out the beauty in these 11 tracks, most notably on the stand-out track Still. Let Me Tell You About Her is a self-consciously gooey examination of a man so in love he bores everyone within hearing, while the bonus track Impatience breaks the mood with a skip up tempo.

Twenty four albums in 26 years, and Costello shows little sign of being winded.

Updated: 08:49 Thursday, September 25, 2003