This album is a fascinating concept, not just for the collaboration of pop singer and string quartet but also for its clever theme. Every song is conceived as some type of written correspondence, ranging from love letters to suicide notes. I'm not sure whether it's a commentary on this album or on the state of letter-writing in general that the liveliest number, "This Offer is Unrepeatable," is apiece of junk mail.
The sophisticated wordplay and sardonic wit of most of these letters betray their true author, Elvis Costello. Careful listening will be rewarded. My favorite song is "I Almost Had a Weakness," an eccentric aunt's biting reply to a sycophantic relative: "I burned the photographs that you had enclosed God, they were ugly children!"
The vulgar, Brechtian insults of a graffiti-writer on "Swine" are delivered in suitably wild-eyed fashion with the aid of music reminiscent of Kurt Weill. The more bemused outlook of "Damnation's Cellar" recalls the Kinks' Ray Davies.
In spite of its humorous moments, the overall tone of this "song sequence" is decidedly melancholy. From the troubled child's plea to divorced parents, "Why?," to the dying husband's final note to his surviving wife, "The First to Leave," most of these missives convey a sense of longing or regret. These feelings are eloquently echoed by the music of the Quartet's Michael Thomas, particularly in his instrumental "The Dead Letter." Indeed, in confidently juxtaposing delicate shadings with forceful statements, the Brodsky Quartet sounds terrific on this album.
I wish I could say the same for Mr. Costello. He may write with the urbanity of a Cole Porter, but he sings with the timbre of everyman. At times his awkwardness can be effective, as in the overwrought fan letter "Taking My Life in Your Hands." But often his lack of vocal depth and polish, especially in the company of a string quartet, make me wonder whether this collection would have worked better as an anthology featuring a variety of singers. It could have made the difference between a diverting musical concept and a compelling one.