There are those for whom the true Elvis Costello will always be the one who sang "Oliver's Army" and "Alison," but anybody prepared to cling to his coat-tails while he has pursued a trajectory through rather less popular music has reaped some rich rewards. When he released The Juliet Letters, his 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, some suspected the onset of creative middle-aged spread, but a decade and a half later the piece has found its slot in the ever-expanding Costello jigsaw.
On his current tour with the Brodskys, the Letters serve as a link to their shared past while offering a platform from which both parties can venture out on a variety of limbs. Costello, a keen student of his own history, opened with "Accidents Will Happen." Perhaps its title was a warning that anything goes, such as its own ingenious new configuration, pivoting around Jacqueline Thomas's nimble cello lines.
Costello wrote "My Mood Swings" for the movie The Big Lebowski, but the Brodskys have refitted it with an arrangement that makes it sound like a ghost story told by a tormented narrator. In "Pills and Soap," the quartet rise to the challenge of one of Costello's bleakest, most vicious lyrics with eerie shrieks and mocking instrumental laughter. And between them they've concocted a plausible alternative version of "New Lace Sleeves," ripe with evocative harmonic shifts.
The Juliet Letters themselves were sprinkled through the evening, as Costello supplied some narrative glue with his deadpan introductions. The droll waltz of "Romeo's Seance" gave the violinists an opportunity to break into song, and the Brodskys mined a soulful vein in "Last Post," based on a soldier's letter from the first Gulf War.
Costello hinted that he might be back soon with a rock band, but, while the Brodskys haven't yet mastered power chords and feedback, they can handle pretty well anything else. Their collective treatment of Elvis's Falklands War epic, "Shipbuilding," was fraught with mixed emotions, moving through passages of doubt and discomfort before evoking enormous sadness.
"Rocking Horse Road," in contrast, leapt along over a riff so primitive that Costello was able to fit in an extract from "Wild Thing," while "Raglan Road" was a shimmering mystical voyage.
This partnership surely has plenty of mileage in it yet.