In the liner notes, Elvis Costello describes The Juliet Letters, his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, more by what it isn't than what it is.
"This is no more my stab at "classical music" than it is the Brodsky Quartet's first rock and roll album."
Rather, he continues, the music "conforms to, and occasionally upsets, the structures found in our respective disciplines." It appears, then, that he and the quartet — a string ensemble of two violins, a viola and a cello — set out to create a new genre of music. Perhaps a sort of chamber pop.
While the project deserves a fair share of credit for the originality of the concept and the emotionally charged lyrics, it ultimately falls short of being even a modest success, simply because at more than 62 minutes, it is almost unbearable to take at a single sitting.
There are two crowds that this set might appeal to: Elvis Costello fans and listeners of classical music. But Costello fans will soon grow weary of the often sluggish pace of the stringed instruments, and those who appreciate the subtleties of chamber will likely cringe at the clash between the sweet tones of the violins and Costello's gritty vocals. Let's not misunderstand: The Other Elvis is a terrific rock 'n' roll singer, and has in the past demonstrated his ability to sing the pretty song ("Alison"). A silkier voice, however, might have been able to make a better go of it. But as it stands, he might as well have added a saxophone to the string quartet.
As the title suggests, the album is set up as a series of letters. The inspiration was provided by a newspaper article concerning a professor in Verona who answered letters addressed to Juliet Capulet, the character in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
How the professor got the letters, and the exact nature of the correspondence, is unclear — and probably irrelevant. But it is interesting to note that there are people in the world who took the time to write to a dead fictional character. But following up on a desire to collaborate with the Brodsky Quartet, with whom he had been developing a mutual admiration society for two years, they decided to shape their project around the form of letters —love letters, suicide notes, chain letters, letters to long-lost friends.
In "For Other Eyes," a woman whose mate once went astray relates her secret jealousy and distrust: "I searched his pockets / I searched his eyes / I searched his wallet for clues and lies." The most compelling moment, perhaps, is when she describes their love-making: "When we touch our lips feel sore / I question the longing left in his sighs / For other eyes."