The Juliet Letters
Warner Bros. Entertainment
"growing up true is hard to do"
"got a name in '77 you'll milk it 'til your dead"
- from an X-Tal song
When Elvis Costello released My Aim Is True in 1977 he was really cool. A neo-Bob Dylan, he was, with just enough punk rock in him to make him a rebel, and enough Randy Newman-styled irony to make him a genius. Sixteen years later, Elvis has released his umpteenth record, called The Juliet Letters, a collaboration with the Bronsky String Quartet, which promises to be met with drooling praise from yuppie fools all over. I'm sure it's real professional, and the lyrics have lots of subtext and references to nineteenth-century Belgian novelists, as is the trend with Big E.C. as of the last decade or so, and that's all real nice and sweet, but here's the bottom line: Elvis Costello is a boring old fart, pretentious literature (there is nothing worse in rock'n'roll or rock and roll for that matter), and his new record is Really Boring.
This week's review is about old rock guys, or, as Neil Young put on Rust Never Sleeps, probably one of the greatest records ever made, "is it better to burn out or to fade away?" Using a Neil quote is a good idea because he is probably the only guy over forty in music that still makes vital challenging music; Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits being others.
The rest are all fading away. Look at Elvis, a Bronsky Quartet spin-off here, by the way the 'Bronskys are wonderful (don't want the people out there who actually know something about music), a tribute to Irving Berlin there, and you have the makings of a once-vital performer turned corpse.
All right, look at Bob Dylan. Everyone says he's God, but he hasn't made a decent record since Blood On The Tracks. Another one of the greatest; well, maybe Infidels, but not really. On the whole it's been nearly twenty years of unfocused prattle from Mr. Zimmerman. The list of once great, always big, but never interesting rockers goes on. We have David Byrne, Peter GabrieI, REM, U2 (they were never any good, but people think they were, so they count too). Paul McCartney (lest you forget this guy was a Beatle, for God sakes and lastly the Most Pompous Man Alive: Sting.
The-problem is that the music biz is so stagnant that it keeps shoving the same has-beens, never-was's down our throats and were forced to accept them because we really have no choice. Most don't have the means or money to keep up on new music so no one ever knows how great Helmet or Uncle Tupelo or Phish or whoever is. Maybe everyone knows Phish by now, but still, you get the point.
So how come is it that rock'n'roll never lets you age gracefully? Maybe Elvis should have burned out after This Year's Model back in 1978 and made himself a legend, kind of like the Velvet Underground or Tim Buckley. But he didn't. I'm not proposing assignation of all great record makers after they record one great album simply for posterity. I guess what I'm saying is don't get burned by someone you've come to trust. It's better to take a risk on Freedy Johnston than rely on Bob Dylan. It keeps our "legends" on their toes and all you out there from falling asleep at the speaker.