Most people will buy this CD for one of two reasons: they're an Elvis Costello fan or they're an Anne Sofie von Otter fan. The two audiences seem quite separate at first glance — Costello, an intelligent writer of very good pop songs through the 1980s; Otter, a superb classical mezzo known for her Berlioz, Mozart and Handel among others, in opera and in concert.
Aha, but this is the 21st century, and good musicians are no longer frightened of straying from their own section of the record shop. Costello, a knowledgeable classical fan, has been working on several successful collaborations with classical artists through the 1990s (such as the Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet); while Otter's highly-praised 1995 CD of Kurt Weill proved the operatic (mezzo) voice could sing (soprano) cabaret songs perfectly in style (and without a "cigarette voice").
For the Stars features 18 ballads, mostly penned by Costello, and mostly sung by Otter with a few vocal contributions from her likeable collaborator. They deal with what might be called mature-woman subjects: unfaithful partners, compromised relationships, long-term love. They're all in moderate tempos, sensitively and tastefully arranged around keyboards, acoustic guitars, strings and tuned percussion. (Benny Anderson of Abba contributes an accordion, one of many excellent instrumental collaborators.) Highlights of the set are the title track, "Rope," and "Broken Bicycles/Junk," but the songs are consistently good.
What makes them special, though, is Otter's voice. It's quite astounding how she adapts her technique from the opera stage to the FM-session microphone, and it's hard to imagine these intimate songs sung better. Her control, pitching and expression are perfect, but not so perfect it becomes sanitised or wrong for the idiom.
Many of these collaborations fail. This one succeeds without doubt. Hats off to both Elvis and Anne Sofie. It's the perfect CD to play late at night, between dinner and bed, on the sofa with your lover — or failing that, a ruminative whisky.