Elvis Costello's latest record, The Juliet Letters, is just the latest new step in one of the most diverse and fascinating careers in pop music.
This work is the fruit of Costello' s collaboration with the Bronsky quartet, a highly acclaimed string ensemble. The lyrics of the various songs are texts of different types of letters, including love letters, suicide notes and junk mail. The title comes from the many letters that real people have written to Juliet (you know, the famous one), which a retired English professor in Verona took the liberty of answering. Over strong varied arrangements, Costello tells these tales of love and heartbreak (and sometimes just boredom), simply and eloquently.
All this might seem a little strange for a supposed rock star, but Costello has never been one to conform to stereotypes. If you have never explored the man's repertoire, you've missed out. He started in 1977 with My Aim Is True, and then the following year released This Years' Model, his first record with the now famous Attractions. Both records could be classified as Punk/New Wave with the, Sex Pistolesque snarl and bite; yet they exhibit at the same time the dazzling lyrics of a young Bob Dylan. Combined with Costello's cutting voice, they instantly became classics.
Since then Costello has switched genres, as often as most people release any music at all. Get Happy, his 1980 tribute to American soul, and Motown, one of the most brilliant and underrated pop records of the decade, are both a testament to his versatility. Costello's also taken on another classic American musical idiom: Country and Western. I know, I'm not a fan either, but Almost Blue, his collection of country covers, will at least convince you that there is more to the genre than drones like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus.
I think Costello's best album was 1983s Imperial Bedroom, a work best described as a stunning fabric of sound. Imagine bits and pieces of your favorite melodies woven together into one seamless whole. The lyrics, sung passionately as ever, tell characteristic Costello stories about the humiliation and despair that often follows love. This is one of those albums that are best listened to by yourself, lights low and moon high.
Actually, I shouldn't really pick a favorite, because they're all pretty much ... well ... works of genius. Start with the new one, or pick an old one. Either way, you won't be disappointed.