For his 14th album, The Juliet Letters, Elvis Costello enlists the help of the Brodsky Quartet in the musical interpretation of a collection of letters written to Juliet Capulet. Apparently, Shakespeare's martyred lover has been receiving letters for years. A Veronese professor had taken it upon himself to answer these letters until his game was exposed by the press in the very news article that inspired Costello to record this album.
The letters, and the motivation for people to write them, provide Costello and members of the Quartet unlimited potential for lyrical exploration.
"I don't know what I would do / If this should fall into other hands," Elvis announces in the first song, inviting us to surreptitiously sift through the personal and private correspondences of the lonely, disappointed and lovesick. The separate tracks on the LP contain family squabbles, suicide notes and oaths of love, with an occasional junk-mail advertisement thrown in for good measure ("This Offer is Unrepeatable").
The pulse of the violins and cellos in the musical accompaniment do wonders for setting the tone of the album. It sounds strange to hear Costello sing about Liberace, Elvis Presley and Lee Harvey Oswald in "Damnation's Cellar" because the music gives the impression that these people haven't even been born yet. The music is so convincing and so compelling that the listener is more inclined to believe he or she has been to a performance at Hancher than listening to a record album.
The bows and violin strings do nothing to soften Costello's classic bite and sarcasm. "Thank you for the flowers / I threw them on the fire" he sings on "I Almost Had a Weakness? Song titles such as "Dear Sweet Filthy World" sound as if they could have come directly off of Spike or Armed Forces.
The music's softness does allow Costello to use his voice in new ways. He doesn't need to shout over guitars and drums on this one. He waltzes through "This Sad Burlesque" and soars over "Taking My Life in Your Hands." For the most part, his vocals are sharper than they've ever been, but they aren't without their failings. His attempts at vaudeville theatrics bomb on "Swine" and "This Offer is Unrepeatable," and the dribble of "Why?" is unlistenable.
For any failings it might have, Elvis is to be commended for The Juliet Letters. It's not often that an artist of Costello's stature will take the risk or use the imagination needed to create an album like this, but Costello is known for risk and imagination. The Juliet Letters is a masterful work that stretches Costello's talents to a new limit. One only wonders what he will do next.
Maybe the musical adaptation of Don Novello's The Lazlo Letters is in order. We can only think and dream and hope.