I am exactly the profile of a record-buyer who should recoil at the appearance of For the Stars, the Elvis Costello-Anne Sofie von Otter collaboration out today. You know: never bought a pop album in his life, two college degrees in (classical) music, shudders in stores when hearing piped-in sounds written by anyone who has ever been invited to Madonna's Miami Beach mansion.
And it's easy to be cynical about the venal crossover industry, what with Michael Bolton's feebly outlining Verdi in primal screams, and Aretha Franklin's once again threatening to pull the trigger on Puccini.
Classical lovers feel besieged; they sense one of their prized psychological possessions, orthodoxy, slipping into the chaos of a feral marketplace. Andrea Bocelli has no right to his success, they reason, when music schools are turning out singers by the hundreds who could sing circles around him. And pop artists are just out for a little classical cachet by rummaging through the repertoire.
But classical music will continue to be classical music. And that which borrows from it (it is just borrowing, after all) will just be something else.
Von Otter's something else is perhaps the best crossover album by a classical singer yet, and that's because it crosses over so far that there's barely anything classical about it. Costello was the creative force behind For the Stars (Deutsche Grammophon), arranging the tunes, writing some of them, producing all of them. One great thing about it is the fact that neither artist was subsumed in the merger. Yet von Otter's voice is transformed. The Swedish-born, English-raised mezzo doesn't sound like a classical babe in pop woods. She seems perfectly comfortable in this repertoire, manipulating her timbre instantaneously — deep and chanteusey one moment, employing her tremendous classical chops the next.
"Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" has the same pedal steel guitar twang through the texture that k.d. lang likes to use (Ingénue), and for this song, von Otter puts on a little of the lang sound. She also conveys an incredible vocal fragility that nicely enhances the meaning of the words.
But the best thing about this improbable CD — most of the cuts, anyway — is the emotional ambiguity Costello manages to create with his arrangements. This is something achieved in the best music, whatever the genre. "Rope" has an Astor Piazzolla-like mysteriousness and harmonic vagueness. It's the result of a collaboration. The moody music was written by Fleshquartet — "a classical string quartet with a hell of an attitude and a thunderous drummer to boot," according to the Swedish group's bio — and was given words by Costello.
Von Otter's facility with the new genre didn't happen by itself. Costello moved the mezzo close to the microphone, just a few inches away, minimizing her full-voice classical tendencies and putting her on a first-name basis with the listener. He also changed the sound of the mezzo's voice, almost from track to track. "For No One," with words and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, is given an antique veneer. For some songs, Costello filtered the singer's voice through a 1940s microphone.
Costello — I am told he is considered a genius by some, a mere god by others — has a canny sense of sound, manipulating myriad factors, including the arrangement, instrumentation, embellishments and more. This is a concept completely foreign to classical musicians — the ability to change so profoundly another composer's work.
Not everything is magical about the CD. Poetic subtlety is sometimes in short supply. "Broken Bicycles," for instance, is stunningly banal:
Broken bicycles, old busted chains.
Rusted handle-bars, out in the rain.
Somebody must have an orphanage for
All these things that nobody wants anymore.
Such a lyric should never be accompanied by accordion.
Irony helps. Sometimes you can squint (aurally speaking), and the music recedes in time. "You Still Believe in Me" starts with a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood celesta solo, and then breaks into an outright '60s-fete with acoustic guitars and groovy tambourine. In this instrumental context, no lyric is too corny.
"Like an Angel Passing Through My Room" shares a few notes with an aria from Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. A lullaby, it is sweet, constant and reassuringly acoustic.
What this newest crossover effort has going for it is that it is aimed squarely at a specific demographic. It's very WXPN, and it helps tremendously that von Otter has none of the vocal stiffness of other classical singers who have ventured outside of their genre. I like Barbara Hendricks, and I love Monty Alexander. But hearing them together (on Tribute to Duke Ellington) is as joyless a crossover venture as I can remember.
What about hard-core classical heads? Von Otter has an ardent following, and some of them may pick up the new album.
But how about not succumbing to pop's dubious standard of achievement — that is, how many units shipped, who's earning top gross — by simply declaring the new Anne Sofie-Elvis partnership a success regardless of how many people hear it.
With that, Costello would be crossing over into genuine classical territory.