In a musical climate which is conducive to, and even encourages imitation, it is refreshing to see Elvis Costello break from conventions with his fourteenth album, The Juliet Letters. An hour-long suite for strings and voices, the album is a breath of fresh air amidst the inundation of guitar drone and recycled dance beats which constitutes a majority of popular music today.
Letters, a song cycle detailing the true story of a Veronese professor who answered letters addressed to "Juliet Capulet," is a collaboration between Costello and the London-based Brodsky Quartet. The first track, "Deliver Us," stresses the fact, that this is not solely an Elvis Costello album. The song, a short instrumental, recalls Schubert rather than Costello standards like "Alison" or "Watching the Detectives." To reinforce this collaborative effort is the fact that no one individual is credited with either the musical or lyrical content. Rather, all five artists take responsibility for the gems contained on the album.
While some may complain that the music is simply "generic classical," it is nonetheless effective. Each new song seemingly adapts classical standards with stunning results, as in the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque, "Swine," or the the show tune stylings of "This Offer in Unrepeatable." Those familiar with Costello's voice might find themselves surprised at how easily he has adapted it to a classical background. From the keening high notes in "Taking My Life in Your Hands," to his initial low notes in "For Other Eyes," the voice fits.
Some have complained that the classical backdrop has weakened Costello's impact. However, without the flashy instrumentation of his rock albums, one has to focus on his always-compelling lyrics. As noted above, the lyrics are a group effort, but a line like "You're a swine/ And I'm saying that's an insult to the pig," is undeniably Costello. As self-described lyrical "editor," his influence can also be found in compositions that might not be his own, such as "Dear Sweet Filthy World."
Elvis Costello has dared to reinvent himself yet again with Letters. His current incarnation proves his lyrical strengths are still intact, while also showcasing a brilliant young string quartet. Some may dismiss this album as pretentious, highbrow garbage. But those who feel they deserve more than the latest Nirvana clone will find a deeply rewarding experience in The Juliet Letters.