London Telegraph, January 16, 1993

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Merely fiddling about

Tony Parsons

Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet
The Juliet Letters

Ever since Paul McCartney decided that a song called "Yesterday" needed a little more than guitar, bass and drums, pop music has used the string quartet as a flavouring agent. For 30 years young men in leather trousers have employed old men wielding violins, viola and cello to add pathos, beauty and a melancholy grace to their jungle music.

Now Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet have taken the process several steps further. On The Juliet Letters the string quartet attempts to be an equal partner to the pop star rather than just his dream topping.

Unfortunately, the union of Elvis and the Brodsky Quartet has spawned a discordant monster where the latter's bitter-sweet melodies are always overwhelmed by the former's sour diatribes against life, the universe and nothing in particular.

In the past, Elvis has frequently invigorated his work with all kinds of musical form and sometimes — most notably when he dallied with country and western — the results have been rather good. But here the Brodsky Quartet are never more than grist for his misanthropic mill.

Lines such as "So you're the little bastard of that brother of mine," or "I'm out of luck, I'm not that strong, my hands, your neck, I might have wrung" — in other words, the same old sneering, mean-spirited Elvis Costello that we know and used to like a little bit — gain absolutely nothing by being given a wash of poignant strings.

"This is no more my stab at 'classical music' than it is the Brodsky Quartet's first rock and roll album," Costello, as ultra-sensitive as ever, writes in his sleeve notes. "It does, however, employ the music which we believe touches whichever part of the being that you care to mention. It also conforms to, and Occasionally upsets, the structures found in our respective disciplines and indiscipline!"

Yawn. The Juliet Letters actually seems to me like the desperate gesture of an artist whose career has lost all sense of purpose or direction. And this is an Elvis Costello album. Despite the equal billing of the Brodsky Quartet, Costello wrote most of the words and music. There are 20 tracks, all clocking in around three minutes, all of them meant to be letters of one sort or another, all of them mediocre little pop songs tarted up as something special.

"In 'I Thought I'd Write To Juliet' a cynical writer quotes the contents of a letter he has received," huffs Elvis. "This 'soldier's letter' is closely related to one sent to me during the build-up to the Gulf War tragedy. I would not like to comment further, except to say that it is not included as a simplistic political gesture, either 'for' or 'against' anything, but rather to illustrate the predicament of two characters in being forced to reconsider their assumed positions."

The whole record is like that — pretentious, long-winded and spectacularly boring. This is, in fact, a perfect example of what we once called a concept album. What do you think you are, Elvis — a major artist?

Tags: The Juliet LettersThe Brodsky QuartetI Almost Had A WeaknessDear Sweet Filthy WorldI Thought I'd Write To JulietPaul McCartney

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The Daily Telegraph, January 16, 1993

Tony Parsons reviews The Juliet Letters.


1993-01-16 London Telegraph page 15 clipping 01.jpg

Page scan.
1993-01-16 London Telegraph page 15.jpg


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