Elvis Costello's latest album, a collaboration with the Brodsky string quartet called The Juliet Letters (Warner Brothers), is the singer's most mannered performance yet. In yet another ill-advised attempt to exploit the additional length provided by the CD format, this 20-song opus is too long by half; it would've made a decent 10-song LP and an excellent four-song EP.
The concept — a series of letters to lovers, lawyers, relatives and the void, inspired by a real-life academic who answered letters addressed to Shakespeare's "Juliet Capulet" — is well-suited to some experimental arrangements along the lines of Costello's Spike. But The Juliet Letters never varies from the string-quartet format.
Costello tries to compensate by assuming various voices to suit the content of the letters, undercutting his greatest strength as a singer — his emotional veracity — and turning much of the album into a Tin Pan Alley exercise.
There are some splendid performances: Costello spewing Cockney spite in "I Almost Had a Weakness" and singing from beyond the grave to his lover in "The Birds Will Still Be Singing." A divorce letter addressed to solicitors "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" comes closest to the caustic pop of Costello's prime; ironically, it was written by violinist Michael Thomas.
Overall, it's minor Costello, a genre lark on par with his 1982 country outing, Almost Blue, and of interest to diehards only.