NEW YORK — His previous collaboration with Paul McCartney not with-standing, Elvis Costello's new album, The Juliet Letters, may be his most ambitious and risky challenge yet.
Credited to the Brodsky Quartet and Costello, the new Warner Bros. release finds the singer/songwriter/guitarist this time vocalizing only, his accompaniment being the esteemed British classical string quartet composed of Michael Thomas and Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; and Jacqueline Thomas, cello. But Costello takes great pains to point out that the Brodskys are no mere backup group — nor is this his vain attempt to bridge the highbrow market.
"I don't mean to belabor this, but I really feel passionately about this record," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Understand that neither is it a 'serious' gesture on my part, nor is it a crass move by the Quartet to gain a commercial reward from a staged event in the classical world. We've both entered into [the collaboration) very wholeheartedly and, therefore, emotionally and spiritually. It every bit equals anything I've ever undertaken and is in no way a side issue."
Nor is The Juliet Letters anything less than a full collaboration between the two parties. "Some people are determined to imagine that this is all my idea — which isn't the case — or that art music is off limits to a writer like myself. Others have found it difficult accepting that the same person who wrote songs like 'Hurry Down Doomsday' or 'Couldn't Call It Unexpected' (from Costello's preceding 1991 album Mighty Like A Rose) is the same person who wrote The Juliet Letters. But I can't answer that."
What answer there is, of course, is found in the creative process. The joint venture followed Costello's attendance at the Quartet's 1989 London performances of Shostakovich's string quartets, and his subsequent discovery that Quartet members had attended his London concerts as well.
Work on the effort began in November 1991, and was titled after a newspaper account of a professor who had been secretly answering letters addressed to "Juliet Capulet." The Juliet Letters, then, takes the form of 20 letters written by various fictitious correspondents, covering a variety of real-life concerns. As examples, there's an obsessive love letter, a suicide note, a political comment, and a soldier's missive from the front.
"It's not a narrative cycle but a sequence," continues Costello. "Everybody still dreads the return of the 'concept record,' but the letter format allowed us to develop characters we might have otherwise not arrived at.
"Inevitably, people will concentrate at first on the most structured and immediate songs, like 'Jacksons, Monk And Rowe' or 'Romeo's Seance,' " Costello continues. "I hope they won't shy away from the darker ones. You can't listen for two minutes or channel-hop and expect to get anything from it. It's more like a good collection of short stories."
Though everyone was fully involved in the music and lyrics, Costello, being the practiced wordsmith, assumed a lead editorial role. He also learned proper music notation, so as to communicate his musical ideas to the Quartet with greater intelligence than his customary "plunk on the piano" compositional method.
"With five people composing the same piece of music at the same time, it was completely different from anything I've ever done," says Michael Thomas. "It would have been easier for Elvis to go away and write a song, and one of us to go away and write another, but we decided early on to make it a five-way collaboration, for better or worse."
All also shared in the arrangements, though the Quartet was better suited to translate them according to the technical limits of their instruments.
The quartet format, he further notes, brings out the pieces' "smaller meanings" through the often subtle relationships between his voice and the string combinations.
"You enter quite a different world, which is hard to convey with all that 'noise' going on in rock 'n' roll — which is vital to my life, but not in these kinds of songs."
Costello now hopes that The Juliet Letters will appeal beyond the artists' combined audience.
"Some people may perceive that I've run up against a brick wall or taken a turn too far," he says. "But I think that's wrong, mainly because we aren't trying to combine genres, but create something new."
Adds Thomas, "This is a big risk for Elvis because he's so well-known, but it's a risk for us also because a majority of our work comes from classical concert promoters, who can be quite snobbish. But we're very proud of what we did, and it was really very easy working with Elvis because he's so knowledgeable about classical music. We don't know if people will like it, but we think it's a worthy piece of work, and that should be enough.
Due to scheduling difficulties, Costello and the Brodsky Quartet, who have performed The Juliet Letters in England, will perform the album in America only in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New York, March 14-18. Costello reports that a film combining the work's performance and background has been shown in England and may be distributed in the U.S. as well.
Costello also salutes Warner Bros. for its "very bold" support of the project. Not only was release of The Juliet Letters made separate from his pop album deal, but the label is giving him extra time to turn in his next pop disc, a "favorite songs" collection of covers titled Kojak Variety.
To support the album, Warner Bros. has serviced album rock with the entire record, as well as a six-song sampler of suggested tracks. Though radio stations are free to play any of the tracks, the label is stressing "Jacksons, Monk And Rowe."