Pop vocalist Elvis Costello recently released his latest effort, The Juliet Letters. But listeners will no longer find those light-hearted tunes of a past Costello, who preached that rock "radio is a sound salvation." This founder of '70s and '80s pop culture has taken a turn toward the unusual.
His new project resulted from the inspiration of a string quartet and a story about an Italian professor who answered letters addressed to Shakespeare's Juliet.
Costello was enchanted by the idea and created his own story of such correspondence. He wrote a series of letters that might have been written to a Juliet, letters that might present an emotional cross section of humanity.
Even more discordant from his past work, he collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet, a group of classical string artists who teach at Cambridge and have recently played on tour. They accompany Costello's fictitious lyrics on this album. The baroque sound has been termed a sort of "parlor music" which leaves room for emphasis on the words of his Juliet letters.
Costello completely breaks free from his more conventional projects that identify him. But he claims that the innovative album is "no more [his] stab at 'classical music' than it is the Brodsky Quartet's first rock and roll album."
The Juliet Letters depicts Costello's vision of London life in its imagery. Each letter seeks solace from the fictitious Juliet, expressing a variety of modern problems and hidden emotions: passion, betrayal, loneliness and pain. A woman writes of her love and jealous rage. An ambivalent soldier faces fear. A desperate man signs a suicide letter, writing "Life is dark / Cold as the sea / Embrace me in my anguish ... / I can't go on."
Costello puppets these pathetic characters in creating their feelings. He exposes his ego as he condescends, though. He both depresses and angers the listener who is made to feel sorry for the characters; they seem to be the sad results of Costello's subconscious. Many of the songs push the chilling "Deep, Dark Truthful Mirror" feeling that evaded his recent effort, Spike.
But the letters get lighter as the album moves on. The more upbeat tracks include "I Almost Had A Weakness," "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe," "Romeo's Seance" and "Damnation's Cellar." Not only do these tunes escape the deathly sadness that pervades the album, they are enjoyable. With these, Costello impressively utilizes the artistic capacity of the string group.
The group proves truly talented as they tackle dramatic tempo changes, quick pizzicato and rapid trills that follow the brighter spirit of these tracks. They even touch on blues, at times, and suggest light jazz in "Damnation's Cellar." Well executed.
On the slower tracks, though, the Brodsky violin/viola group takes a back burner, unfortunately. The group complements Costello's letters, following the melodic pattern of his voice, but they allow his script to act as the musical focus. Based on the melancholy, love-lost feel of his literary attempt, this focus seems a poor choice.
The Juliet Letters is an innovative project, however. If Costello's excursion does not throw you off, you might be impressed by the imagery.