Elvis Costello has done it again. With the release of The Juliet Letters, his new collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, Costello has crossed yet another dividing line in one of the most remarkable careers in pop music history — and once again created a work of astounding reach and invention.
Fifteen years have passed since My Aim Is True, the first album released by Costello. Back then, he was reinvigorating rock 'n' roll, creating songs with the craftsmanship of the Beatles and the energy of the Sex Pistols, simultaneously reinforcing rock traditions and riding the New Wave's break with those traditions. Those early albums (after Aim came This Year's Model, Armed Forces and Get Happy) were full of consistently brilliant songs.
There followed a period of calculated eclectism which, if it didn't match the breathless excitement of his first few records, did show considerable musical growth and a willingness to experiment. Sometimes, he came up with clear winners — Trust and Imperial Bedroom come to mind — and sometimes you had to work a little harder to find the gems. Who really listens to Almost Blue more than once if you can play some real George Jones records? And what was he thinking when he allowed Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to put such a sugary sheen on Goodbye Cruel World?
Then, in 1986, Costello put together a career year, releasing his two finest albums, King of America and Blood & Chocolate, which could not have been more different from each other. The first was a much more natural combination of Costello's pop instincts and American country traditions, while the second was one of the harshest blasts of vitriol, albeit catchy, ever delivered on record.
Since then, he's slowed his recording pace considerably, having released only Spike in 1989 and Mighty Like A Rose in 1991. Both struggled to do too much, covering musical territory all over the map and lyrical ideas that sometimes overpowered the tunes rather than complementing them. They weren't bad records — in fact, they have plenty of great songs — but Costello seemed trapped playing within formal boundaries, content to undercut them with lyrical stabs of irony rather than reshaping them musically as he had during his best moments.
And now comes The Juliet Letters. It's a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, a string quartet well known in classical music circles. It's an album meant to work as a whole, with all the music created with a particular end in mind. The songs are conceived as letters, not lyrics, and I don't think there is any precedent for such a project. Costello sounds revitalized and once again seems ready to live up to the acclaim of those who say he's the greatest songwriter of our time.
He didn't write all of this music. The Brodsky Quartet's members were fans of Costello's work, as he was a fan of theirs. Costello is able to stretch his musical muscles, moving into the composition of eloquently crafted instrumental passages (he brags in the liner notes about his progress in learning to write music on score sheets during the last year), and the Quartet gets to invent pop songs. The lines between each partner are seamless; some of the Quartet's songs seem so strongly marked by Costello's trademark melodic sense that longtime fans will have trouble believing he didn't write them.
But stretching that trademark is much of the point of the album. Costello has always had an ear for a great tune, whether from rock, country, soul or the world of pop standards of the '20s and '30s. By dropping his reliance on being able to accompany himself on guitar. he's freed himself to write more elaborate melodies drawn from all the source named above and yet unlike any of them. (The only direct source of inspiration I can detect is an occasional nod to the music of Kurt Weill and one possible homage to Stephen Sondheim, of all people).
The music written by his partners doesn't bow to limitations either. Costello's singing is challenged far more than ever before, and it comes out a clear winner. Indeed, he may be ready to stake a serious claim as one of our finest, most identifiable and emotionally secure vocalists.
By deciding to create all the songs as if they were letters, Costello and the Brodsky Quartet did more than find a concept on which to hang their collaboration; they found a way to mix their respective traditions. Art songs of the 19th century were frequently based on poetry, but they were always far more elastic melodically than the pop songs of our century, which were derived from folk balladry. Letters can be both common and poetic, frequently in the same sentence, and this lyrical fluidity allows the songs to go wherever the creators are willing to send them, without ever forcing them to sound silly.
In the liner notes. Costello speaks of three projects we can expect in the near future. He's got a new pop album to make, an album of cover material already in the can and a musical drama to be completed by the fall. It's almost as if he were back in his early years, when he was so full of the giddiness of genius that he couldn't wait to throw out the next project. I can't wait to hear his newest ones.