Melody Maker, January 23, 1993

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Melody Maker

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Pushing back the envelope

Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet / The Juliet Letters

Allan Jones

They'll love this on The Late Show. Elsewhere, expect to hear the sound of jaws dropping. For a lot of people, The Juliet Letters may be as far as they go with Costello.

You have to hand it to Elvis. One of the many great things about him down the years has been his willingness to test the patience of his audience. Even at his most commercially beleaguered, he refuses to bock off. In this, at least, he is increasingly like Dylan and Neil Young. By which I mean that the last thing you expect from them is often the first thing they do.

After the lacklustre performance of Mighty Like A Rose, for instance, you might have expected Costello to slink off, maybe knuckle down to what so many people think he does best and start trying to duplicate the witty and acerbic pop songs that made him popular in the first place, possibly with The Attractions in tow. From what you hear, however, he's given all his new pop songs to Wendy James. Not much bothered it seems, with his own commercial status, what he has actually delivered with The Juliet letters is perhaps the most uncompromising album of his career.

Let it also be said, as emphatically as possible, it's also the most compelling thing he's done in years.

The Juliet Letters is subtitled "A Suite Of Songs For String Quartet And Voice." This sounds a bit grand, but that's exactly what it is. The record is a 20 song collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet, previously famous for their classical interpretations of Shostakovich, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and Bartok. Whatever preconceptions you might have about the fusion of rock and classical music, don't be mistaken into thinking that The Juliet Letters is some highbrow conceit. It's a daunting and intense piece of work, but by no means inaccessible, and you don't need a profound appreciation of classical music to be charmed, entertained and moved by it.

The alleged inspiration for the album was a news report about an Italian professor who for years had been answering letters sent by members of the public to Shakespeare's fictional tragic heroine, Juliet Capulet. What has resulted from the Quartet and Costello's subsequent contemplations on this eerie, rather odd and haunted correspondence isn't a straightforward linear narrative — Costello is too clever for that. The Juliet Letters is a sequence of songs presented as a series of letters — love letters, begging letters, junk mail, chain letters, threatening letters, solicitors' letters, postcards, letters never written, sent or delivered, a suicide note — that taps into the secret pathology of the way we communicate, what we say or don't say. What we disguise or confess, how we threaten, cajole or caress through language, statement and fact.

You can see why Costello might have been drawn to this format. For a start, he's found what he has long been looking for — call it a kind of authorial anonymity, if you like. The songs here are written from a multiplicity of perspectives, and each assumes a different voice, a different personality. Costello gets to play a variety of roles, often within the some song. On "For Other Eyes," for instance, he's a woman full of prickly jealousy and suspicion. On "I Almost Had A Weakness," he's an eccentric, embittered old aunt. On "The Letter Home," he's a bitter expatriate writing from New South Wales in the late Thirties. For "I Thought I'd Write To Juliet," he's a female soldier preparing for the Gulf War. For once, when Costello sings in the first person, we are perhaps less likely than usual to make automatic and simplistic assumptions about the autobiographical origins of his material.

Costello is at pains, in his rather luvvy sleevenotes, to emphasise the collaborative nature of this project. As far as he's concerned, he didn't write these lyrics so much as edit them. This isn't to say we're on totally unfamiliar ground here. Costello's perpetual preoccupations run through the album like a drain. What makes them fresh is the largely uncluttered language, the generous range of emotions they articulate. On The Juliet Letters, we find something of the true weight of Costello's writing and it's often very impressive indeed.

Not everything works. There are moments that jar badly. Sometimes the music is simply too formal. Elsewhere you might be uncomfortably reminded of the soundtrack to a dreadful Czechoslovakian cartoon about a boy and his wooden dog. There are vaudevillian passages and end-of-the-pier serenades, stuff that smacks of the local amateur operatic society. There are also times when things are just overcooked — the hyperactive "Romeo's Seance," for instance, and the busy, cluttered "Damnation's Cellar," which is a ghastly cross between "God's Comic" and "When I'm Sixty Four."

Mostly though, these songs are the most startling contexts in which Costello has appeared for a while. And the more sombre the mood, the more these pieces grow in authority and emotional impact. "Taking My Life In Your Hands," "Dear Sweet Filthy World" and "The First To Leave" are all about loss and despair and are performed with a majestic intensity.

It's good, too, to hear Costello's voice recorded live, without the overdubbing and multi-tracking that have been so distracting on recent LPs. On the final chorus of "Taking My Life" and the whole of the deeply affecting "The Birds Will Still Be Singing," he's simply heartstopping

"This Sad Burlesque" is outstanding, too. Written on the eve of last year's General Election with a postscript added on the morning of Labour's defeat, it's as vituperative as, say, "Tramp The Dirt Down" with the elegiac atmosphere of "Any King's Shilling." Costello recognises the duplicitous ruthlessness that has become characteristic of John Major's wretched government, but his anger is mitigated by a weary disgust.

The Juliet Letters, finally, is hard work. But its ambition deserves your perseverance and rewards your time and effort. With each successive play, something new and unexpected is revealed. It's that rare thing, really: an album you know you're going to be able to live with down the years.

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Melody Maker, January 23, 1993


Allan Jones reviews The Juliet Letters.

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