In that brief early-'90s period before grunge embraced punk and new wave was something to mock, Elvis Costello was hardly popular. His general disfavor was not helped when pundits got wind of his next project: an original song cycle with a string quartet. To make matters worse, the theme of the project was letters written to a fictional character, Shakespeare's Juliet. While it screamed pretension on paper, the biggest surprise for the people who took the time to listen to it was that it was pretty good.
Beginning with an overture of sorts, The Juliet Letters gave Elvis a chance to stretch both his compositional legs as well as his voice. The nasty sneer of his early work shows up only rarely, giving way instead to a loud, bold croon that invariably ends in some kind of vibrato.
Juliet, thankfully, doesn't appear in all twenty songs, but most share the common theme of confession and revelation, from love letters ("Taking My Life In Your Hands," "Who Do You Think You Are?") to angry, humorous diatribes ("Swine," "I Almost Had A Weakness").
Death looms large over the proceedings, in the form of suicide notes ("Dead Letter," "Dear Sweet Filthy World"), voices from beyond the grave ("Romeo's Séance," "The First To Leave") and even a postcard from a soldier ("I Thought I'd Write To Juliet").
Other current events get a nod in "This Sad Burlesque" and "Damnation's Cellar," while "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" takes the form of junk mail. The subdued yet grand finale, "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" makes for a somber farewell.
Once you get past the arrangements — most of which follow the increasingly quavering vocal closely — you've got some classic Costello that could easily translate to his rock albums, but even he hasn't bothered. The most obvious choice would be the undeniably catchy "Jacksons, Monk And Rowe," which is just begging for a Pete Thomas backbeat and Steve Nieve arrangement.
Despite its relative success for a classical album, The Juliet Letters was criticized for years, acknowledged in Elvis's grumpy notes for the 2006 reissue. (It probably didn't help matters that his other big releases of 1993 were the first wave of reissues of his first three albums, along with an album's worth of songs he and his then-wife wrote in a weekend for fading pop tart Wendy James.)
Rhino's bonus disc thoughtfully includes some more collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, along with some modern classical and jazz collaborations that complement the main album better than they would any other. All in all, it's good rainy day/Sunday morning music, though one does long for a rhythm section after one play through.