Something strange happens to pop personalities as they approach middle age; they experience an overwhelming urge to be taken "seriously." Declan MacManus is the latest to set up stall on Respectable Street, and tonight is not so much a gig as a recital.
This ain't rock 'n' roll — this is gentrified. Costello, carrying a large, hard-back lyric book, has teamed up with a string quartet for a very unusual project; a series of "letters" inspired by a newspaper item about lost souls who've actually written to Shakespeare's Juliet Capulet. And though listening to The Juliet Letters at home can be heavy going, on stage, it works perfectly. Elvis has described it as a song sequence for string quartet and voice, and it has been suggested in some quarters that a different voice might have done the material more justice. It's true that certain passages expose weaknesses in Costello's voice, as was the case with the country album Almost Blue (trying to follow George Jones was a big mistake), but at times his natural frailty only enhances the songs' drama.
"Taking My Life In Your Hands" wouldn't be out of place on Imperial Bedroom, "Jackson, Monk And Rowe" might just be his best single in ten years, and "Damnation's Cellar" — a tale of choosing a dead hero to return to life — shows Costello hasn't lost his sense of humour: "The critics say Nijinsky, the dancer, of course / While the punters would probably prefer the horse."
Bonus encores of Kurt Weill's "Lost In The Stars" and Jerome Kern's "They'd Never Believe Me" are a treat, but there are no new arrangements of Costello favourites, although parts of The Juliet Letters does offer the venom and menace of old. No Armed Forces, or This Year's Model, but plenty of blood and Capulet.