Singing of a cynic's world-view in "A Sad Burlesque," Elvis Costello mentions "The pitying smirk." Funny, a pitying smirk is exactly what the young and splenetic punk laureate would have mustered for anyone that suggested that one day he would be making not LPs but "song cycles for string quartet and voice." Derision will follow hot on the heels of this project, words like "pretentious" will be bandied about and Costello, no enthusiast for rock critics, will be as sour and grumpy as usual, And all this will be a pity, for The Juliet Letters is the best thing to bear Costello's name in five years.
Caution: if you don't like the sound of a string quartet or anything remotely resembling "classical music," you will hate The Juliet Letters. You will find yourself pining for rimshots and riffs and the paraphernalia of rock. But if you've an open mind and you've found the last few Costello records muddled, pathological and unappealing, The Juliet Letters might strike you as a clear and communicative change for the better.
For a few years now, Costello has been claiming to have found more sustenance in classical music than in current pop output. Ironically, the string quartet is the nearest thing classical music has to a rock band line-up, particularly if it's the Brodsky Quartet, arguably the best young quartet around: unstuffy, dressed by Issey Miyake and not averse to appearing in sherry ads. What's apparent from this record is the enthusiasm for the project from within. It's a genuine collaboration (all five members have a hand in music and lyrics), though it's interesting to note that Costello's music is the most self-consciously "serious" while that of Quartet leader Michael Thomas is the most unambiguously melodic and "poppy." Indeed, even the Brodsky's visual sense seems to have rubbed off on Elv, who has thankfully abandoned his "Giant Haystacks" look.
Apart from three solely instrumental pieces The Juliet Letters consists of thematically linked songs, each purporting to be a different kind of letter; chain letter, love letter, begging letter, suicide note etc. The logic is strained to breaking point at times; "A Sad Burlesque" is obviously the post-election dirge Costello just had to get in somehow, but for the most part the tactic holds up well.
It's by no means perfect, of course. There are three bad instances of Stravinskian grotesquerie toppling over into painful comic operetta ("Swine," "This Offer Is Unrepeatable," "Damnation Alley") and Costello seems unsure at times which singing voice to plump for — straight tenor, sneery Scouse, standard Americanese or Gilbert & Sullivan frivolity — but the good far out weighs the bad. Too much so to categorise in fact, except to say that there are moments of extravagant catchiness ("Jackson's Monk And Rowe," "I Almost Had A Weakness"), chilling interludes ("Why?," "Dear Sweet Filthy World") and, in "The First To Leave" and "The Birds Will Still Be Singing," two death ballads of real lyricism and poignancy.
The shame is that, whilst his last few albums have been praised beyond their worth, The Juliet Letters — a bold, flawed, encouraging affair — is probably on course for a pasting by virtue of not being a rock record. Let's hope not, not least for The Brodsky Quartet, as this is every bit as much their record and they should be proud. The Juliet Letters really is something to write home about.