Review of For The Stars
Time Out NY, 2001-04-19
- Peter Terzien


Issue No. 291 April 19-26, 2001

Elvis Costello and Anne Sophie von Otter

For the Stars

(Deutsche Grammophon)

An album of ABBA covers," the TONY editors said, and I bit. Ah, it was only in my dreams. As it turns out, only one song on For the Stars, "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room," is by Bjorn and Benny, and it's ponderous, late-period ABBA at that. Half of the songs here are written by Costello; an impeccable selection of well-wrought covers (including songs by Anna McGarrigle, Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, and Ron Sexsmith) makes up the difference—only the Beatles' "For No One" and Nina Simone's signature "The Other Woman" could be considered overinterpreted.

ABBA fantasies aside, you may think that a collaboration between this (unfairly) disparaged, great pop singer-songwriter and a Swedish mezzo-soprano known for her interpretations of Handel, Verdi, and Mendelssohn is a great idea or a terrible one. As for me, I expected some parlor trick a notch above those orchestral recordings of the Doors and Pink Floyd. Pop material usually makes a hash of classical voices—the phrasings are off, the vocals too mannered and succinct. But For the Stars is dripping with loveliness. Costello saw Von Otter perform some 12 years ago and was immediately captivated. It's easy to see why. She is enchanting here, transforming her glassy voice into something warm and malleable, and Costello proves a perfect foil: If she is indeed fit for the stars, he adds a bit from the gutter. McGarrigle's heart-wrenching "Go Leave" and Sexsmith's "April After All" are lit from within.

If anything, the album is excessively maudlin. The setting could be a Weimar music hall: An accordion medley of Tom Waits' "Broken Bicycles" and Paul McCartney's "Junk" sounds like the credits sequence in a Tim Burton film; "This House is Empty Now" (from Costello's collaboration with Burt Bacharach) is a shameless weepie; and strings swell and moan throughout the album. However, the singers transcend the heart tugging—von Otter's voice is soufflé-light. If it ever comes together, For the Stars II will be a welcome treat—I can't wait to hear their versions of "Voulez-Vous" and "Money, Money, Money."—Peter Terzian


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