Elvis Costello says he has been listening to lots of classical music, so it's hardly a surprise that his latest release — The Juliet Letters, a collaboration with the Brodsky string quartet — sounds very nearly classical.
That's not necessarily good. Yes, Costello has transformed his tenor into something approaching an impassioned and impressively nimble classical instrument, with an unexpectedly liquid, keening high range. But otherwise the record doesn't have much vitality. The songs — which examine the many kinds of letters people write, from valentines to suicide notes — sound abstract, almost impersonal, as if they'd absorbed the airless sensibility of a classical concert hall.
But it's the quartet that really drags the album down. We don't know who arranged the music; Costello, quoted in his record company's press release, says the process "was varied and is mysterious to contemplate." The results, though, are depressingly easy to characterize: They sound like snippets overheard on classical radio.
The scampering introduction to a song called "Swine"? That's Bartok. The melting climax in "Dead Letter"? Pure Richard Strauss. Worse yet, the borrowings are timid. Out of the vast storehouse of classical possibilities, this "mysterious" joint effort could retrieve only two or three of the most obvious ways a string quartet might accompany a voice. All too often the strings just echo the melody. You don't need a classical background to sense the resulting constriction.
What's especially sad, of course, is that Costello's rock albums overflow with teeming, trenchant musical life. Classical music, it seems, has done him no good. Instead of expanding his horizons, the dead hand of Great Art has made them severely contract.