It Is no secret that Elvis Costello has tired of popular music. From being one of its most eloquent and articulate interpreters (as "pure pop for now people," Country, R&B, Philly soul), DP MacManus has distanced himself from the superficiality and limitations of pop. Mighty Like A Rose was a deeply and fundamentally flawed album. His soundtrack to GBH was a clear indication of his musical direction, his comments on Desert Island Discs revealed just how uncomfortable a fellow traveller he now was.
So now, with purging complete, we have The Juliet Letters, a full-flowered collaboration with trendy classicists The Brodsky Quartet, who pose like Prefab Sprout on album covers. Rarely in a career that is no stranger to experiment or failure can such a definitive nadir have been reached.
It Is naive to expect Costello to sit around writing variations on a theme of "Oliver's Army" or "Radio, Radio." He has been there, done that; from My Aim Is True to Imperial Bedroom, Costello delivered the most assured, bravura series of albums since the heyday of The Beatles and Dylan. It is precisely that confidence and sureness of touch which makes The Juliet Letters such a disappointment — no, such a farce.
If Elvis Costello, in tandem with The Brodsky Quartet, wants to be Bartok, Kurt Weill, Gilbert and Sullivan, or Wilson, Kepple and Betty, that's his prerogative. But if he's going to do it, he should do It well. Too much of this album sounds like third-hand pastiche, poor parody or pathetic tribute.
At random, 'I Thought I'd Write To Juliet' sounds like a fulsome tribute to the music of Brecht and Weill: staccato rhythms with all lyrical construction left unbalanced. That is the fundamental flaw of this conceit — there are no tunes (the fault which so undermined Mighty Like A Rose), there are no melodies, and this from a man who has proven so adept, so frequently in the past.
The Juliet Letters conjures the spectres of progressive rock; of musicians tiring of pop limitations and keen to flex their creative muscles by forging rock with "the classics." Such ambition belongs to Deep Purple and The Nice; it shouldn't happen to Elvis Costello.
The fatal flaw, however, is that Costello's voice Is no match for the pseudo-classicism here. It sounds pathetically stretched and vulnerable. Elvis had one of the great pop voices; he was capable of breaking your heart with a syllable. Now with The Juliet Letters, he just makes you want to cry for all the wrong reasons. • 3