After 16 years of wearing — and wearing down — his image as the angry young man of punk, Elvis Costello goes for baroque this time out.
The Juliet Letters pares down the Costello sound, pairing him with a string quartet that has made its name with distinctive interpretations of classical and modern composers. The combination is neither rock nor classical but rather a kind of chamber pop — not a far stretch considering the quieter pieces in Costello's oeuvre have always had a touch of music di camera.
Nonetheless, it's a significant shift, perhaps the most daring outing of Costello's willfully volatile career. Fortunately, The Juliet Letters, with its loose concept of dour correspondence that focuses on lost love and suicidal depression, works more than it doesn't.
Costello sounds emboldened by his new surroundings, trying a variety of new voices and altering his effect to fit the mood of each piece.
It's not entirely unfamiliar terrain; with their riffs and choruses, numbers such as "I Almost Had a Weakness" and "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" are bona fide pop songs that are simply executed without the standard rhythmic drive of drums and electric instruments.
The Brodskys are a fine musical foil for Costello, imaginative in their arrangements — particularly the stirring codas that end many of the songs — and bold in their playing.
It's not likely The Juliet Letters will make us forget "Alison" or "Pump It Up" or any of Costello's pop masterpieces, but the album certainly should be viewed as more than an eccentric sidetrack.