Perhaps it was inevitable, after Elvis Costello made his name as an acid-tongued punk tunesmith in the late seventies, he reinvented himself in the eighties as a neosoul shouter (Get Happy!!), a torchy crooner (Imperial Bedroom, Punch the Clock), a country & western twanger (Almost Blue, King of America) and an eclectic jack-of-all-trades (Spike). A foray into classical music might have been the only challenge left for this voracious workaholic; his new album, The Juliet Letters, is an ambitious joint venture with a British chamber-music ensemble called The Brodsky Quartet.
"There are plenty of examples of rock people matching up with classical music or something else and coming out with a horrendous record," Costello says. "I don't think the rock-based stuff is the worst of it, either. Some of the most hideous stuff comes when classical enters the pop world. Like an opera singer doing Peggy Lee songs — I mean, why?"
The singer-songwriter fervently believes The Juliet Letters is the exception to the dreck. It's a confessional song cycle, no less; an intertwined series of third-person missives set to the formal melodies and flow of classical music. Call it challenging, even a bit daunting. Just don't call it classical-rock fusion.
"This isn't something to be afraid of," Costello quietly insists. "It's not some high-art concept thing. It has more in common with jazz and bluegrass than rock. We're trying to break down the perception that it's my record arranged as a string quartet, that it's my next 'experiment.' It's not a concept album, now is it? Where's the concept? So it has an idea? Yes, it damn well does; it has lots of ideas!"
Receiving interviewers in his Manhattan hotel suite over a pot of Irish breakfast tea, EC is sharp-eyed and cordial at ten in the morning. He's trimmed that scraggly, Amish-farmer beard, and his loose fitting suit is a hip, subdued shade of black. His new-found enthusiasm for classical music in general threatens to bubble over sometimes, yet he's surprisingly respectful — even reverent — about it. The angry young man who set his sights on "Alison" and urged numbed-out listeners to "Pump It Up" is a figure of the past. Of course, flashes of the fiery, opinion-filled old Costello's cutting edge still surface now and then.
A devotee of Shostakovich, Costello met the Brodskys after he heard their 1989 festival performance of the composer's complete quartet works. Though the quartet members — violinists Michael Thomas and Don Belton, violist Paul Cassidy, cellist Jacqueline Thomas — are all in their early thirties, they've played and recorded together for twenty years. Known for a wide repertoire ranging from Haydn and Mozart to thornier and lesser-known twentieth-century composers, the group previously crossed the pop-culture barracade by providing music for one of designer Issey Miyake's Paris fashion shows.
Costello did more than meet the Brodskys halfway. For starters, this self-taught, fifteen-year veteran of the pop-music business finally learned how to read and write music.
"I didn't have to learn to write music to do this," Costello says. "It just made it easier. Before, I would make little tapes for the musicians; say I want a groove like a Howlin' Wolf record, play 'em a Howlin' Wolf record! Why not? That would be frowned upon in the classical world."
Paul Cassidy expresses open admiration for the speed and facility Costello showed in mastering the basics. "Elvis tends to underplay it a bit," says Cassidy. "He learned to write music in a month!"
"I thought I had a block about writing music," says Costello. "But I got over it. And then I found out, well, this isn't a bad system. No wonder we've been using it for 700 years. The disciplined aspect of writing down allows you to have more abandon inside that structure. The Brodsky String Quartet is never going to be as loud as a rock & roll band, but it wields an attack in its own way.
"There are two mistakes I think are easy to make with this record," Costello patiently continues. "One is the way people assume that it's just a singer with backing stringed accompaniment. Two is the way some people seem to think a song is like a small, frightened child at the center. And the string players weave all this stuff around him — the notes pile up like the superstructure of a cat's cradle. You know the way pop records use orchestration like an icing or a cushion of strings? Well, that's not the case here."
The unifying idea behind The Juliet Letters surely is something more than another bogus rock concept. It's a full-fledged literary conceit; a vision of Romeo's old girlfriend as a sort of Shakespearean sob-sister figure. Around the time he started jamming with the string quartet, Costello and his wife, Cait O'Riordan, came across one of those obscure but true newspaper filler items — several sentences about an Italian college professor who discovered a crate of alleged "Dear Juliet" letters.
"I assume there was a time when you could write to Juliet Capulet, care of Verona, Italy," says Costello, "the same way you could once write to Charlie Chaplin, Hollywood, USA, and have it get to him. We didn't want to research it and turn it into a documentary."
Seeking to make his voice the "fifth instrument" in the quartet rather than the centerpiece, Costello opened up his own composing process to include the Brodskys. Not only drawing on their extensive musical training ("I know how guitars work but not how fiddles work"), Costello solicited their input on lyrics — quite a novel fashion.
"We worked haltingly at first," Costello says, "drawing up a list of the different types of letters. Everyone went home and tried to write a suicide note one night — just like school."
The songs on Letters mirror this process. "Dear Sweet Filthy World" is a goodbye-cruel-world note; "This Offer is Unrepeatable" spiels like a chain letter; "I Almost Had a Weakness" mumbles guardedly like an elderly aunt's latest gossipy dispatch. Several of the melancholy kiss-offs (such as "Taking My Life in Your Hands") hit their romantic targets like classic Costello letter bombs. Actually, the artfully stinging divorce notification "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" could fit onto Imperial Bedroom.
Though he's written a modern classical ensemble piece for reeds and strings since the completion of The Juliet Letters, EC hints at yet another new direction. "I've written a musical play," he says. "It should be produced next year. It's about the afterlife: God melts in the bathtub and comes back to haunt people in the water system; they drink, and he gets in their bodies. The title has changed several times."
He hasn't exactly abandoned the pop-song format, either. "I wrote fifty songs last year," Costello says rather casually. "My wife and I got a phone call and wound up writing ten songs for this girl, Wendy James of the pop-punk group Transvision Vamp. Not one — ten. We just had a weekend to spare, so we wrote ten. I said: 'If we don't finish by Sunday, forget it. It's got to be quick, like a Tin Pan Alley job.' I always said I could write pop songs to order, and then somebody said prove it. And I did."