CD Review, March 1993

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The Juliet Letters

A Head-to-head comparison — Two distinct views
of a new album by the former Declan MacManus

Dan O'Kane

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The other Elvis was recently sighted — looking especially svelte and clutching an enormous bundle of musical scores — slipping into of all places, the Great Hall, in Dartington, England. Inside he performed a strange program consisting entirely of musical letters backed by classical mavericks, the Brodsky Quartet. Now a studio version of the same program is being released as The Juliet Letters.

Sooner or later you knew Costello was going to do it: go classical. This is by no means the first time he has leaped across genres, nor is it his first thematic album. The Juliet Letters is a logical step and the Brodsky Quartet is the perfect fit. Costello is on a frantic mission to tie a playful ribbon around the entire spectrum of popular music and the members of the Brodsky may be his classical soulmates.

The lyrical device of the letter allows the terminally droll Costello a wide range of human madness and transgression from which to draw inspiration. There are love letters, hate letters, war reports, and even junk mail among The Juliet Letters. Costello is more a wizard at creating the brief provocative image that he is the long meaningful passage, and The Juliet Letters contains some of his most vivid images since Imperial Bedroom. The title track, "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet," is based on a newspaper clipping about a Veronese man who used to answer letters addressed to "Juliet Capulet."

Costello is no rival to any great vocalist — his voice is anathema to a percentage of the population — but he sings without pretense on this difficult program, which was recorded with no overdubs.

Extensive liner notes explain that music and lyrics were contributed by the entire group. The broad range of emotions that the standard string quartet can evoke is astonishing and for those of you who are classically challenged this disc may offer some hope. The music climbs and swirls around Costello's broken syntax and working-class British accent, giving the program a burlesque quality that's most endearing. The man does fancy himself an actor of sorts, and these songs give him the opportunity to showcase his schtick. Some passages are reminiscent of American musicals such as Guys and Dolls, and some of the more striking moments of interplay between the quartet, which come during the transitions between songs, sample the works of the great composers, especially Beethoven.

This disc will no doubt ruffle the feathers of some classical fanatics who believe that the only good composer is a dead one, and those who believe the genre is off-limits to the untrained enthusiast. Just like rock 'n' roll, classical has its problems; the incessant air time of "Stairway to Heaven" would have to continue for another hundred years to compete with that of Tchaikosky's Piano Concerto No. 1. All kidding aside, Costello is an extraordinary character and The Juliet Letters is just another chapter in a remarkable career that continues to stretch the boundaries of popular music.


CD Review, March 1993

Senior editor Dan O'Kane and Music editor amd classical critic David Vernier review The Juliet Letters.


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Cover ad contents page.

The Juliet Letters

David Vernier

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When jazz pianists John Lewis or Keith Jarrett suddenly release an album of Bach preludes and fugues, questions of motivation and credibility arise. Such concerns can quickly be justified or dispelled simply by listening and comparing the performances with the long-established tradition and techniques of playing Bach. But when a famous pop singer/songwriter becomes infatuated with the classical string quartet and decides to use it as the basis for constructing an entire album, evaluating its success becomes far more subjective.

Elvis Costello has made a career of borrowing (even his name) from others, which itself isn't such a bad thing, as long as he — as did many classical composers — is able to take these ideas and fashion something new out of them. That's not the case with The Juliet Letters. If you're familiar with the works of classical composers, you find yourself constantly distracted from the intriguing texts by all the reminders: It's Bartok, no, wait, it's Beethoven, now it's... Bernstein? Even the Beatles (as in George Martin) make several appearances.

The Beatles reference is useful because it illustrates a fundamental flaw in Costello's and the Brodsky's work. In the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," the strings didn't just contribute a unique sound; their presence, sonically and in tems of the arrangement, was an essential ingredient. Neither piano nor guitars nor any other combinations of instruments would have worked as well. Only in a few instances does the uniqueness of the string quartet seem essential to Juliet. The often unidiomatic writing betrays the notion that by its presence the quartet somehow would add something magical to a song. When the quartet writing does work (probably when written by one of the ensemble's own members), it shows the worthiness of the concept; these moments are all too rare.

Costello's whining, straining voice also becomes a distraction long before the disc's 65 minutes are up, partly because most of the songs are defined by a similar moody, meandering melodic "structure" that begs for contrast, variation, or some semblance of development. It's tempting to suggest that listeners forget the music and just read the texts, but it would be misleading to imply that there's *nothing* worth listening to here.

Fans probably will eat this up as another brilliant installment in the never-know-what-he's-gonna-do-next career of Declan MacManus. And he's right: The combination of voice and string quartet is underused. The Juliet Letters gives a clue to the reason why — that is, just because you're a songwriter and you like string quartet music and you join forces with one of the world's most progressive ensembles, success isn't guaranteed. If you want to hear how this sort of thing should be done, listen to Vaughan Williams' song cycle On Wenlock Edge, for tenor, string quartet, and piano (EMI CDC 54346).


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