Penn State Daily Collegian, January 22, 1993
Elvis Costello takes a new direction
Elvis Costello, the acerbic punk rocker, once spat out "What's So Funny About (Peace, Love, and Understanding)?"
Now, Costello — in an easy listening mode — is trying very hard to make us forget about his past cynical rubbish.
Costello, a long-time classical music junkie, finally gets to work within a traditional setting. The album is a drastic change from his punk roots and last effort, Mighty Like A Rose. Listeners won't find a "Goon Squad" or a "Watching the Detectives" in the lot. His political rants are replaced with songs concerning romantic triangles, unrequited love and intrigue.
Costello is no amateur when it comes to shifting his style in an attempt to caress his artistic fancy. His Stax-influenced collection, Get Happy and his album of country standards, Almost Blue are reminders that Costello likes to toy with his audience.
This time around with The Juliet Letters, Costello shaves his beard and leaves his trademark horn-rimmed glasses at home for a more intellectual sound. Costello is still the same old punk trying to confound mainstream contentment, but with strings instead of guitars.
Accompanied by the — Brodsky Quartet (featuring two violins, a viola and a violoncello), The Juliet Letters may seem like Costello's attempt at conformity. Fortunately, this is neither an ill-fated ego trip nor a banal tribute to his favorite standards.
The Juliet Letters is a collection of 17 original "letters" (songs) and three non-lyrical compositions. The idea was inspired by the "Juliet Letters" in which a Veronese academic would reply to letters addressed to "Juliet Capulet." The correspondence lasted many years until exposed by the media.
The content of such letters was never determined, so Costello decided to fill the blanks with his own version of the Juliet Letters. With the help of the Brodsky Quartet, he paints an album of longing and love.
The music may have changed, but Costello's writing remains brilliant.
He has made a career specializing in biting wit and inventing the perfect put-down. He is the only artist left from the late '70s punk scene who hasn't withered with age and writer's block.
While the Sex Pistols contemplate a reunion, Costello keeps pushing musical and lyrical boundaries; albums such as Spike and now The Juliet Letters prove he is one of the few willing to take risks anymore.
Lyrics such as, "The hunted look / the haunted grace / the empty laugh that you cultivate / you fall into the false embrace / and kiss the air about your face," from "Who Do You Think You Are?" create a mood that is neither angry nor trite.
Unfortunately, his vocals become a nagging problem on some tracks. Although the Brodsky Quartet isn't the Attractions, Costello's usual punked-up Buddy Holly-style delivery is a far cry from Nat King Cole.
Songs such as "Swine" and "Romeo's Seance" falter because Costello's voice gives out. But, on a majority of the songs, his vocals wrap the lyrics rather than assault or peck at them.
Though it will take time for audiences to get used to them, letters such as "I Almost Had a Weakness," "This Offer is Unrepeatable" and "The Birds Will Sing" prove Costello is the only innovative songwriter left from the late '70s British invasion.
Ironically, Costello has made his most "punk" album since that era.
The Daily Collegian, January 22, 1993