You have to admire Elvis Costello's moxie. Or maybe you have to wonder at his foolishness. "The Juliet Letters" is a project as high-minded as it is loopy. First of all, Mr. C. performs all these songs--that is, the seventeen (out of twenty) in which he sings--with a string quartet. Second, the music here is supposed to be neither pop nor classical but some other species. Third, these songs are supposed to add up to a cycle of letters, some (but not all) to Juliet Capulet, as in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Doesn't all this sound like somebody has been thinking a little too hard? Well, the album sounds that way, too.
The best tunes here are the ones in which the letter-writer's personality comes shining through, musically as well as lyrically--the deeply suspicious wife of For Other Eyes, for example, or the unrequited lover of The Letter Home, who vents her bitterness after years of silence. Maybe because these songs are full of character, they seem like show tunes--or maybe I just like them better because they have some formal hooks. Most of the arrangements strike me as inconsistent blends of pop and classical, sometimes relying on a strong beat or following the vocal line closely, sometimes swooping independently of the vocals. Some may call "The Juliet Letters" a bold experiment. I mark a lot of it: "Return to Sender."