The call from San Francisco made Elvis Costello's day. Ten years ago, the news that a mainstream American pop radio station had put two of his latest songs on its playlist would not have caused his heart to beat a little faster; today, in the bar of a London hotel, he can't conceal his glee.
"That's great," he chuckles down the phone. "Both 'Romeo's Seance' and 'Jacksons, Monk and Rowe.' There will be crowds at the airport."
Costello's records have never been predictable ("I'll use any bloody music," he said once, "I'll steal from anywhere.") But the new one is something else. The Juliet Letters is a 20-song collaboration with the Brodsky string quartet. He rejects the "Elvis Costello goes classical" label and equally that the Brodskys have gone rock 'n' roll. It's a quartet with a voice, a vocal quintet, he says.
Three years ago the Brodsky Quartet was performing its acclaimed Shostakovich series in London when someone spotted Costello in the audience. Costello had grown weary of pop concerts — too predictable, rather hammy — and had taken to concert halls in search of something more.
In the Brodskys he found four brilliant musicians who achieved what he believed to be a unique balance. "They played music, not just notes, they had painstaking respect for the music, but weren't overawed by it," he said. They also looked pretty cool, a fact not lost on their record company's marketing department.
By chance, the quartet also admired Costello and went to his shows. These days, the mutual admiration is in danger of getting out of hand. "Almost Blue played in my car for 11 years non-stop," says violinist Michael Thomas. Costello feels a little queasy with this. "That's because it was stuck," he offers.
They decided on a collaboration in November 1991, and had their theme within a month. Cait O'Riordan, the one-time Pogue who has become Costello's wife, saw an article about a Veronese professor who answered letters sent to Juliet Capulet.
They liked both the poetic and rather tragic qualities of this, and initially thought of producing a cohesive narrative song-cycle between two love-lorn correspondents. This structure "would have become like a prison," Costello believes, so they settled for a theme of letters. All letters, any letters: begging letters, chain letters, junk mail, suicide notes, kids' notes, solicitors' letters, letters written but never sent, letters sent that never arrived; everything but notes to the milkman.
Musical themes were equally diverse: baroque, systems, folky, funk, '50s light. You can detect Schubert and Bartok, Sondheim and Weill. It's a daunting work full of intensity and intelligence. You should adore it after three plays.
At 37, Costello is not new to classical composition or arrangement. Strings featured on many of his lush Beatle-ish songs on Imperial Bedroom (1982), he worked with Richard Harvey on his soundtrack for Alan Bleasdale's GBH (1991), and he appeared with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall. But this collaboration was a five-way split, not just a temporary backing band.
Each member of the quartet contributed their own lyrics. To hear it described now, it sounds like school homework. They all went home and returned the next morning having written their own words. By chance, everyone wrote a suicide letter.
There is a grim finality to most of the letters. "Most letters do seem to carry important news," says violinist Ian Belton. "People don't write for the purpose of writing any more, they write to say something serious."
"We tried doing a letter from an aunt in Derry just writing trivial stuff," Costello says, "but there's no way you can get the peculiarities of the colloquialisms and phrasing over."
The sleeve notes speak of "the absence of much of the crafty language of the songwriter," which may be taken as a reference to Costello's own past-his fondness for wordplay so intricate that it verged on the painful. You remember, when he used to "step on the brake to get out of her clutches," and "speak double-clutch to a real double duchess."
"I have to live with certain preconceived ideas about me," Costello says, "I'm Mr Angry, Mr Revenge, and I only do tricky wordplay. But I'd like to see where this wordplay is on the last four or five records I made — it's just not there."
When I first met Costello six years ago (during one of those tricky identity crises in which he variously called himself by his real name, Declan MacManus, the Imposter or Napoleon Dynamite), he said: "Goodbye Cruel World was the only bad record I ever made, and a lot of bands would be very happy if they ever made a record that good."
I said I thought that sounded a little arrogant. "That's just the way it is," he said. Today he says: "I like all my records. There's something good in all of them." He says he used to worry about where it was all leading, about something called career progression. Now he says, "It's not a boxing match, it's just life. If you don't like it, buy another record."
And so we have. A few folks have stuck with him through the past 16 years — through the early mealy-mouthed cynicism, the Stax tributes, the country sojourns, the over-layered technical experiments, the love stuff, the political stuff. But most have drifted in and out, which suits him fine.
The album has received only three public airings but is being taken on a brief world tour this month. With the exception of Jacqueline Thomas, the cellist, the group performs standing up, with Costello in the middle. Lots of black, lots of bow-ties, lots of gothic. Costello grips a heavy lyric book in place of the guitar.
A problem arose at the first performance: what to do for an encore. Initially they performed a couple of letters again, but are now considering reworking some earlier Costello favorites, "but only if they can be dismantled to suit the mood and collaborative nature of the rest of the project."
"If we get this piece over to an audience, and we open up people's ears and take away any perceived terror of what we're doing, the crassest thing you could do after that is to come back out and do a quartet arrangement of 'Alison,' just to get cheap applause."
You'll hear more traditional stuff from Costello later in the year. He has written an entire album for Wendy James, formerly of Transvision Vamp. "They're beautifully written, melodious songs that will last forever," James says. "There are some things about my personality that he has understood without it ever being something he could pick up in print, and all that must come from the letter."
Letter? Depressed, James had sent Costello a note "about my general dissatisfaction with everything going on in my life... I was asking for help, but nothing specific." A few weeks later she had an album's worth of songs.