If ever there was a recipe for pretentious bombast, The Juliet Letters by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet is it.
The idea of a rock star recording with a classical-music outfit known for its interpretations of Haydn and Bartok is bad enough. When their concept for the recording is a series of letters to the fictional Juliet Capulet (of Romeo and ... fame), you've really got to wonder how such monstrous crossover can work.
Yet the results here are surprisingly palatable, even if they won't make you trade in your copy of Blood and Chocolate. On the best songs here, the Brodsky Quartet and Costello find a common ground that's neither classical nor rock 'n' roll — chamber pop, one critic called it, and that seems to fit.
On the lesser tunes, though, it's like a square peg and a round hole. The words seems stuffed into the melody and the voice and strings seem a bit out of sync.
Without the dependable hammer of bass and drums behind him, Costello's voice, like the Emperor's new clothes, is out in the open on this, his most demanding vocal effort to date. He responds well, singing his heart out on tunes such as "Taking My Life in Your Hands," even coming up with a few new voices he hasn't shown us before. He sounds refreshed after the disappointing Might Like a Rose, a cluttered and weary-sounding effort.
The Brodsky Quartet, which shares composing and lyric credits with Costello on most songs, plays beautifully. In fact, one of the results of this record may be an increase in sales of their Shostakovich cycle, which Elvis raves about in the liner notes.
Some of the songs here rival anything Costello has done. "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe," a letter to some divorce lawyers, is propelled by a breathtaking melody and some gloriously snide lyrics.
"Swine" is the kind of withering putdown Elvis has excelled at since 1977's "I'm Not Angry." Most of the songs here, in fact, are either bitter or sad but this is Elvis Costello, after all. Who else could get away with this verse: "The trey bon mots you almost quote from your quiver of literary darts / A thousand or so tuneless violins thrilling your cheap little heart / Who do you think you are?"
Then there are the songs that don't quite work so well. "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" sounds like the theme from a Threepenny Opera rip-off. It sports the occasional witty line but Costello, singing faster than he can manage, just can't catch his Brecht.
The good songs outnumber the bad, though, and on a 20-song, 60-minute disc, that's plenty of good music. Costello and the Brodsky Quartet deserve a lot of credit for going this far beyond expectations. Both deserve even more credit for making a fine record, rather than the flop this could so easily have been.