Elvis Costello has never been afraid of taking chances.
There weren't many from the punk generation singing duets with George Jones on American network television. Nor were many of them heading to Nashville to record an LP brimming with covers of country favorites.
Indeed, Costello was the only participant on the 1977-'78 Stiff Records package tour who covered Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself").
So it should come as little surprise that Costello — whose diversions (solo tours, concerts with a full orchestra, etc.) have continued over the years — should present us with The Juliet Letters (Warner Bros.), a record so far from what anyone would expect that its mastermind deserves credit simply for stumping us.
The record is a collaboration between Costello and Britain's Brodsky Quartet, a classical string quartet that is taking no less a gamble with its reputation in performing with a pop star.
The lyrics (penned mostly by Costello, with contributions from members of the quartet), written in the form of letters, feature some of Costello's most riveting work. Similarly, his unusual vocal style soars in this setting.
The music, again fundamentally Costello's with input from the players, gives Costello the opportunity to showcase his broad composing abilities. Rather than being bland quartet arrangements of "rock" songs, Costello displays an understanding for melodic counterpoint and complexity that testifies to his talent.
On a couple of occasions — most notably on "Swine" — Costello almost takes us into overwrought Broadway show-tune land, but fortunately those are the exceptions.
The Juliet Letters is a fantastic achievement that may not mean much to some Costello fans, but is nonetheless stamped with the inimitable style of rock's premier songwriter. It is a vault across the pop-classical abyss that few pop musicians would have the skill or viscera to make.