The Society for Responsible Aging exists in the mythical world of rock 'n' roll. Founded by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Neil Young, this group consists solely of middle-aged white musicians who, for better and for worse, make intelligent, adult rock music about growing up and growing old. Theirs is highly personal music, and if it happens to find commercial success, it's only as an unpredictable accident.
Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits are all members. Lesser names include John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III. Bruce Springsteen found himself inducted last year when his two simultaneously released albums stiffed on the charts While Sting's only an album or two away from joining, Mick Jagger will never make it past the guard at the door.
With the release of The Juliet Letters, a rewarding collaboration with a chamber suing ensemble called the Brodsky Quartet, Elvis Costello finds himself inside clubhouse walls.
Billed as "a suite for voice and strings," the album's initial inspiration came from a small newspaper story Costello read about. A professor in Verona had taken to responding to letters addressed to Juliet Capulet. Having lately developed a love for classical music, Costello began collaborating with the Brodsky group on a project based on the article. The songs on the finished album all take the form of written correspondence of some sort, ranging from love levers to junk mail to suicide notes.
The adjectives that often apply to Costello's fellow Responsible Agers can be applied just as well to The Juliet Letters. It's mature like all Van Morrison, somber like recent Lou Reed and nostalgic like some Tom Waits. It's only rock music in the loosest sense and would never consider kicking butt. But if you allow yourself to be drawn in, it does have a certain unique power.
Over the years, Costello' s voice has developed into a varied and impressive instrument. Each song is written from the point-of-view of a different character, and Costello handles them all — from the ranting aunt in "I Almost Had a Weakness" to the mournful child in "Why?" — with grace and care. It's a pretty remarkable performance.
And with the extent of my knowledge about classical music, the Brodsky Quartet could actually be the biggest group of hacks in the business. I find myself enchanted by their performance, which seems to be distilled enough through Costello's poppier sensibilities to create some interesting contradictions.
I sympathize with rock fans who refuse to give themselves over to The Juliet Letters' middlebrow pretensions. But if you're willing to accept the Society of Responsible Aging's more glaring weaknesses and take some joy in its strengths, Costello and the Brodsky Quartet have produced an album that's at least worth its weight in gray hairs.