His last album of more-or-less conventional pop songs found Elvis Costello spinning his wheels, making this radical departure seem all the more refreshing. Here, England's most ambitious and accomplished post-punk songwriter engages in a complete collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, the country's acclaimed chamber string group. Contrary to their perceived strengths, the Brodskys contribute significantly to the songcraft, Costello helps with the arrangements, and the results achieve coherence as a song suite rather than some pop-classical hybrid.
As the title alludes, this is an epistolary project, with each song taking the form of a letter — suicide note, unsolicited offer, brooding revelations written but never sent, correspondences that attempt to sustain a relationship over the cracks of time. The various personas bring a playfulness and a sense of adventure to Costello's vocals, while singing over violins and cello (the album's only instrumentation) rather than electric bass and guitar allows a subtlety and intimacy that mark the material as well.
Occasionally, the enterprise seems overly precious, literary and oblique (an annotated libretto helps provide context) — and its 20 selections stretch the collaborative inspiration too thin — but highlights such as "Taking My Life In Your Hands," "Dear Sweet Filthy World" and "This Sad Burlesque" rank with the bittersweet best of Costello's Imperial Bedroom. The album recalls an era of polite society and refined desperation, one in which writing letters was a soul-baring exercise, and chamber music was a mark of domestic civility. Amid the comparative clang and clatter of modernity, the album sounds like nothing else you're likely to hear.