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.