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).