This collaboration between the esteemed classical mezzo-soprano and the erstwhile king of new wave might easily have been stilted. Anne Marie von Otter's remarkably expressive voice — enhanced, on some tunes, by Elvis Costello — is a perfect vehicle for Costello's Catholic literary sensibility.
Recorded in the Stockholm studio where ABBA laid down their paradigmatic pop, on For The Stars von Otter and Costello make beautiful music. Not only are Costello's originals as graceful as ever (the new "No Wonder" and title track coexist effortlessly with older Costello tunes such as "Baby Plays Around" and "I Want To Vanish"), the cover versions are inspired. Von Otter does Brian Wilson more than proud with two Pet Sounds selections, seamlessly joins Tom Waits' "Broken Bicycles" and Paul McCartney's "Junk" (a Costello suggestion) and revives Nina Simone's coquette-noir "Shamed Into Love" with taste and tease.
The album is low-key, insinuating. The Fleshquartet, classically trained Swedish string players, are wonderfully understated, particularly on the eerie, haunting "Rope" and a very modern update of The Beatles' "For No One." Von Otter even gives ABBA their due, recasting the 1981 "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room" as a Nordic art song. Also helping out are longtime Attractions pianist Steve Nieve and former Dave Edmunds/Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner.
Costello has bent genres for years; by the mid-90s, however, he'd run his rock course and detoured into classical and more highfalutin pop. His work with The Brodsky Quartet was more promise than delivery, his album with Burt Bacharach more cult than pop favorite. Costello's restlessness seemed the best thing about him.
This album, however, feels grounded and creative. A fan of von Otter's since his wife, Cait, took him to hear her in concert in 1989 in Berlioz's Damnation Of Faust, Costello aesthetically courted von Otter into this collaboration. Last year, they sifted through some 30 songs, ultimately settling on the 18 that make up this loosely thematic album. It's unexpected — and so good, I hope the outtakes show up as a bootleg.