Orange County Register, January 17, 1993

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Elvis Costello's latest is one few will hear


Mark Brown

Elvis Costello's 1981 album of country tunes, Almost Blue, has the distinction of being his poorest-selling album.

No more. It's likely his new release, The Juliet Letters, recorded with the Brodsky Quartet, will claim that crown now.

Which is a shame, because both deserve to be heard, if only for the sincere perspiration Costello put into them. The Juliet Letters, due in stores Tuesday, contains some of Costello's better writing — and by far his best vocal work ever.

But the classical backing and somewhat-contrived format assure no airplay and little more than vanity sales. The Juliet Letters is what its title implies — a series of imagined letters set to music, from different characters for different reasons.

If anyone has the talent to make this kind of career move, it's Costello. All his usual topics are here — infidelity, insecurity, rage, self-delusion, self-disappointment. And singing over strings isn't anything new; Costello, in fact, did a brilliant live gig featuring "I'm Your Toy" with the London Symphony Orchestra a decade ago.

But the barking, semi-operatic "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" (perhaps better titled "This Track Is Unlistenable") tests your ability to sit through it — the Costello equivalent of The Beatles' "Revolution 9."

Why make a film no one will watch, a painting no one will look at or a CD that no one will hear?

In Costello's almost too-earnest liner notes, he explains the concept and recording of Juliet. The bottom line: Because he wanted to.

It's not the best time for such career experimentation. His last album, 1991's Mighty Like a Rose was dense and incomprehensible. The follow-up, Kojak Variety, was a collection of cover tunes that was set for release, but later scrapped.

Still, on its scattered highlights, The Juliet Letters showcases an enormous — and still growing — talent. The writing is unbelievably tight: the usual Costello precision honed to an even finer point. Witness "Dear Sweet Filthy World," a suicide note set to song: "I am not leaving you with all of your problems I the biggest one is me."

The prose Costello wrote with violinist Ian Belton in "Why?" is excruciatingly sharp — 31 words encompassing six simple questions, deftly outlining a child's fear of abandonment: "Why is Daddy not here? / Are you crying? / Why? Does he still love me? Will you take care of me? If you both love me so, why don't you love each other?"

Ironically, the disc's most accessible song — the warm, sad "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" is the one with the least Costello involvement. He contributes a brilliant vocal, but not even the lion's share of the lyrics and none of the music.

That vocal and much of The Juliet Letters marks the next leap forward in the fascinating evolution of Costello's voice. On his 1975 demo tape, he could barely carry the simple tune of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." By I982's Imperial Bedroom, his voice was compared to Nat King Cole. Fast-forward to 1989, when "Baby Plays Around" featured nuance and style Costello hadn't hit before.

If nothing else, The Juliet Letters allowed him to discover even new depths and shadings in his voice. Its future use will be fascinating.

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The Orange County Register, January 17, 1993


Mark Brown and classical music writer Paul Hodgins review The Juliet Letters.

Images

1993-01-17 Orange County Register page H20 clipping 01.jpg
Clipping.


Clash of musical aesthetics, not poor writing, dooms 'Letters'


Paul Hodgins

1993-01-17 Orange County Register page H20 clipping 02.jpg

Elvis Costello, the king of dissolute, cynical love-is-hell songs, has found a seemingly appropriate instrumental match in the Brodsky Quartet. Somehow, the sound of lugubrious strings suits his often-depressing lyrics to a T.

And in The Juliet Letters, Costello and the quartet have created the perfect vehicle for his moody musings.

The composer's wife came across an article about a professor in Verona who answered letters addressed to "Juliet Capulet" (the fictitious doomed heroine of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet). Using this as his inspiration, Costello fashioned a set of fictitious letters. Some are darkly comic; most are simply dark.

At first blush, the letters seem a brilliant creative conceit, yet their unremittingly downcast tone keeps this recording from rising above the level of a curiosity. Songs such as "For Other Eyes," "Expert Rites" and "The Letter Home" have a stolid sameness to them, while more up-tempo songs, such as "I Almost Had a Weakness," wear their forced jollity like an undertaker would wear a clown nose.

The most egregious offender in this style is "This Offer Is Unrepeatable," a Kurt Weill-meets-Sting nightmare of attitude, didacticism and snarliness.

The underlying problem has more to do with the clash of two very different musical aesthetics than with Costello's abilities as a lyricist and songwriter, which have proven to be considerable in other formats.

Costello's edgy, petulant-kid voice works well in the rough-and-tumble confines of a bar band or even solo; fronting a string quartet, however, he seems lost. His melodies meander, his lyrics are strangely blunted, his sarcasm falls flat.

And the Brodsky's orchestrations, some of them richly detailed, all of them exquisitely played, are frequently too affected and elaborately weighty for the material. It's a classic example of good concept, bad execution.

The effort isn't a total write-off, however. "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" works both lyrically and musically — a catchy, gritty take on divorce and its effects on children. "Damnation's Cellar" is reminiscent of a jaunty English sing-along vaudeville tune; it also has hints of the Beatles.

And "The Birds Will Still Be Singing," the CD's final song, is a minor masterpiece.

Whether or not this one triumph is worth the price of the recording is debatable. The Juliet Letters is definitely an acquired taste. Elvis Costello fans will find it an indispensable addition to their collections; followers of the Brodsky Quartet will think of it as a odd crossover experiment; most others probably can live without it.


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