Back in the 11th grade, when I first started my amateur career as a music journalist, I vowed that I would never critique Elvis Costello. To me, criticizing one of the perennial figures in the history of rock and roll would be sheer blasphemy; and besides, we all know that the original "angry young man" could do no wrong.
Well, four years after I made this promise, I find myself at a crossroads. Elvis Costello has recently released a highly ambitious record with the Brodsky String Quartet and I reluctantly accepted the task of writing the review. But after giving it much thought, I decided that I would not so much write a review as a warning.
For all of you who enjoy such Costello classics as "Alison," "Oliver's Army" and "Radio, Radio," or even the more recent tunes such as "Veronica" and "The Other Side of Summer," take note; The Juliet Letters features only two violins, viola, violoncello and voice. There are no drums, keyboards, guitars, harmonies or singable melodies.
Planned as a song sequence for string quartet and voice, Costello's latest brainchild reads more like a bizarre Broadway show gone awry than a sophisticated synthesis of smart rock and roll and classical music.
Adding to the record's unorthodox musical approach is an equally unusual lyrical theme. A professor in Venice has been answering letters addressed to the Shakespearean character "Juliet Capulet," and the twenty songs from the The Juliet Letters are based on this correspondence.
Penned as a team of quartet members, with resident lyricist Costello as editor, the album's lyrical quality pales in comparison to his previous work. Once known for his provocative word phrasing, biting commentary and sharp delivery, The Juliet Letters finds the artist stifled by the constricting theme.
But just when I was ready to dismiss the album as a failure (relative, of course, to other Costello records), Costello rebounds with "I Almost Had a Weakness," a dazzling tango which confirms the songwriter's artistry.
"Swine," described as "a piece of deranged, political graffiti carved on a wooden door" reaffirms Costello as one of the premiere lyricists in the business and features the vocalist in all his bitter glory as he sings, "You're a swine / and I'm saying that's an insult to the pig."
So, it should be apparent that The Juliet Letters has its redeeming qualities, and as I come to the conclusion of this 'review,' do not expect me to tell you whether or not I like this record. As a truly devoted Costello fan, I must confess that I am overjoyed with the new album; but then again, if the man released an album of sneezes, I'd probably be satisfied.
On the Costello scale, relative to his other work, I rate The Juliet Letters a two-and-a-half stars, ranking just above 1984's Goodbye Cruel World. In terms of the broader musical spectrum, give this album a strong three-and-a-half-stars and a final warning: This ain't no rock and roll!