Elvis Costello has stretched for a long time. He assayed country styles on Almost Blue, tried funk for size with Get Happy!!, pushed the envelope of pop on Imperial Bedroom, even collaborated with the most mainstream of Beatles, Paul McCartney (Elvis seems to have invigorated Paulie more than vice versa). On The Juliet Letters, Costello has stretched himself farther than ever before — with mixed results.
Recorded with the Brodsky Quartet, a young aggregation that appears to be England's answer to the Kronos Quartet, those San Francisco darlings of alternative classical, The Juliet Letters is a remarkable recording that finds our boy Declan MacManus at the top of his vocal form. Unfortunately, remarkable doesn't always mean listenable.
Too bad he's not as consistently at the top of his songwriting form, too. But that may be because this is more of a collaboration than he's ever tried before; in the scholarly, intermittently witty liner notes (where it is revealed that Costello plans a disc named Idiophone), Costello gives credit to the Brodskys, some individually, often as a group.
A concept album meant to evoke an epistolary novel, The Juliet Letters was sparked by a newspaper article about an Italian academic who had decided to answer letters addressed to "Juliet Capulet" (the name of Shakespeaie's heroine in Romeo And Juliet). This correspondence between an imaginary person and a real one stimulated Costello to craft this album. By coincidence, he'd gone to several Brodsky Quartet concerts; the quartet, which plays all ages of classical music and interfaces with London's most rarefied art scenes, returned the favor. A mutual admiration developed. Eventually, Costello and various quartet members came together in the composition of The Juliet Letters, an hour-plus song cycle that examines the different (at times careening) feelings one might experience in a relationship that exists largely in one's imagination.
What a concept. Unfortunately, it works better as a concept (the explanation's more intriguing than the music) than as a discrete collection of songs. Not that there aren't beautiful tunes here: "For Other Eyes," the mysterious, patient song that launches the album, is languid and lovely; "Swine," which follows, is almost sprightly and proves Costello has retained his talent for the bilious image. Affirming that talent: "I Almost Had A Weakness," a bitchy tune with a wonderful melody and one of Costello's gruffest vocals. It's catchy, a quality that informs too few of the tunes.
Although they try valiantly, Costello and the Brodskys can't quite sustain the gravity and intrigue of the concept and its epistolary framework. For every clear statement of connection (and this disc is very much about connection, between cultures, genres, people real and unreal), like the lovely "Who Do You Think You Are" there's a disjunctive, stand-alone tune (like the bizarre, vaudevillian "This Offer Is Unrepeatable").
Costello's singing grows increasingly versatile. Here, it's operatic, and at times very street. It's got more character here than it's had since Spike, a 1989 album that ranks among his finest. Spike and Mighty Like A Rose, its failed follow-up, found Costello experimenting with different styles: theatricality, narrative, perspective, efforts to round out one or more characters in a single song. The successes were singular: "Veronica," "Coal Train Robberies" and "So Like Candy," the best song from Mighty Like A Rose.
The way Costello stretches the form of the pop song on The Juliet Letters may be an admirable form of gentrification, a complement to his earlier, creative efforts at slumming through American vernacular in Almost Blue and Get Happy!! And the way he risks alienating his already-dwindling rock audience by eschewing a rhythm section (and any real sense of swing) is daring, at the very least. But the songwriting in The Juliet Letters is uneven, and the narrative (largely implied) lacks sufficient dramatic interest.
After all these years, could Costello finally be turning into the "new Dylan"? Has he, like our boy Bob, become an icon rather than a craftsman capable of producing emotive rock? There's no use expecting him to replicate his exciting, new wave beginnings. But you'd expect a man of such obvious, restless talent to release an album that's memorable for vitality rather than finesse.
Costello hasn't done that on this refined, hermetic album, rendering The Juliet Letters more of a curiosity — albeit one that's frequently beautiful and almost uniformly soothing — rather than a keeper.