If the term "Elvis" is to be taken in the idiom of Western pop culture to mean "the King Of Rock & Roll," and thus meant to signify someone worthy of some sort of prostrating reverence, idolatry, or hero-worship, then there can no longer be any question that the true Elvis goes by the surname of Costello.
If I were to bury a time capsule, 1 would include the discography of Elvis Costello as a testament of our times. He has a knack for tapping into current trends and subverting them to reveal their true colors. In the early days he was the punkish angry young man who was able to repeat what the Sex Pistols were trying to say, but always threw in a literate witticism or a jibe about masturbation, as in "Pump it Up," to turn the punk ethos on its ear.
This talent was used on Spike to criticize religious hypocrisy by describing God reading "an airport novelette, listening to to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's 'Requiem.'" Throughout his career, he has managed to insult just about everyone in a way that does not make them angry so much as bemusedly embarrassed.
Now, when we think we have him figured out and expect, after Mighty Like A Rose, another wittily bitter social commentary that you can hum to, he comes out with an album written with a classical string quartet. Well this is a typically, atypical Elvis album. The story goes that he and his wife, Cait O'Riordan, formerly of the Pogues, saw a blurb in a paper about a Veronese professor who answered letters addressed to Juliet. This snippet coincided with Elvis and the Brodsky Quartet, unbeknownst to each other, attending each other's London shows. With this basis of mutual admiration, they eventually met and agreed to work together. Elvis told the four about the Juliet Letters and sent them home to write.
What results is an album that resembles a shoe box tied with a lavender velvet ribbon full of fading letters that one might find in a grandmother's attic, with all plausible explanations long forgotten by said grandmother. Only this shoebox isn't just full of love letters, but also a suicide note, a soldier's letter, a confession, a last will, a postcard from a post-Dante inferno, and some junk mail. There's even some hate mail: "You're a swine and I'm saying that's an insult to the pig." There's a fairly equitable division of labor in the words and music between the Quartet and Elvis, and the listener is as impressed with a classical musician's talent at writing in the tone of a sleazy advertisement of "This Offer is Unrepeatable," as with Elvis' ability to compose music for a string quartet, when at the beginning of this project he was unable to read music.
Like that shoe box of letters, this album is not to be listened to quietly, as expected with a string quartet, or to be blasted from a dorm room in that "hipper-than-thou-I-listen-to-Elvis," college radio attitude. Rather, it has to be carefully unpacked, and despite the continuity of the theme, each song is a morsel to be discretely examined. What may be perplexing for those who get past the initial incongruity of the performers is the strangeness of string accompaniment to bitter post-modern complaints like, "...any form of deity you might enjoy / Can be conjured with a testtube and a flame / If it's out there than science can explain it / Or at least remove the blame."
What make the parts, beautiful arrangements and flawless lyrics, which are undeniably good in themselves, work as a whole? What separates this from other awkward crossover attempts, i.e. Sting as a jazz man, (or as an opera singer, for that matter), Sinead O'Connor as a big band chanteuse, U2's anachronistic dance mixes, Linda Ronstadt pulling out a Spanish-English dictionary and attempting "Canciones?" What sets Juliet Letters gloriously apart is the obvious mutual respect which the players have for each other and apparent humility with which they tread on unfamiliar ground preventing any embarrassing acts of hubris or posing. Further, Elvis uses his voice as a fifth instrument and rejects any labels of this partnership as a "string quartet and voice," favoring the moniker "vocal quintet." His voice has ripened and become a tool he can manipulate beautifully since the days of "What's So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding." It is truly an instrument which complements the strings in a way that makes the songs enjoyable even without the lyrics. This may surprise fans who have not heard this album, as Elvis' voice has never been his trademark and has always seemed rather a vehicle for his lyrics. However, had he sung "do re mi" throughout this album, it would still be engaging. The uniting of these pieces makes The Juliet Letters not just a novelty or just listenable, but extraordinary.
With this venture, Elvis may consternate some, but proves once again how innovative he is. Clearly, the real Elvis is alive and well and does not need a postage stamp to legitimate his position on the throne as self-proclaimed "King of America."