Within professional musical circles, there is hardly a dirtier word than "crossover." It has come to suggest the forced, joyless mating of two or more musical elements that don't necessarily have much in common and whose offspring are likely to be either stupefyingly bland or monumentally bizarre. One recalls with a shudder the run of over-marinated rock albums with minor Philharmonics; the gaseous "third stream" classical compositions that tamed jazz and put it in a box; the strenuous rendition of "The House of the Rising Sun" by Wagnerian tenor Peter Hoffman, which was about as naturally suited to his gifts as an Allen Ginsberg reading would have been to John Gielgud.
And so For the Stars: Anne Sofie von Otter Meets Elvis Costello comes as a fresh and reassuring surprise, for it is a collaboration between two very different musicians that seems to have challenged and stimulated them both. It falls into none of the obvious traps; it is neither "Opera Star Gets Funky" nor "Pop Guy Goes Pretentious." Indeed, if you put on this album for friends who knew von Otter or Costello only in their most familiar manifestations — as a leading international soprano and a formerly Angry Young New Wave Rocker — chances are that they would be unable to guess the artists.
Although For the Stars contains a few songs that are fairly well known — including Lennon and McCartney's "For No One" and two selections from Brian Wilson's bejeweled Pet Sounds — this is no mere collection of popular standards. Costello and von Otter have sifted and selected their repertory carefully, and no imperious record executive was able to dictate the inclusion of, say, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Yesterday" or "Piano Man" to sell another few thousand copies. Instead, the diverse roster includes some new Costello songs, two Tom Waits tunes, Abba's haunting and prayerful "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room," and a song, "Junk," from McCartney's first solo album, done up in high Parisian fashion, complete with accordion.
In short, whether or not one responds to For the Stars, there is no reason to doubt the album's artistic integrity. That in itself is an advantage over most crossover projects, which are notoriously the brainchildren of marketing departments.
As it happens, For the Stars is lush, lovely and remarkably all of a piece, owing as much to cool, crystalline jazz as it does to traditional classical or pop music. High-hats and vibraphones mingle with string quartets, celestas and the occasional guitar combo. At times, For the Stars approximates a formal song cycle, with each melody, each statement, leading seamlessly to the next. The prevailing mood is one of reflective, nocturnal melancholy, as von Otter mulls over lost love, vanished youth or — in a song all the more chilling for its catchiness — the lethal reappearance of tuberculosis on the world stage.
Despite their overlapping audiences and considerable physical resemblance, von Otter has nothing in common with the frosty and assertive chanteuse Ute Lemper. In fact, she more often calls to mind the hearty earnestness of Anne Murray or, paradoxically, the fluttering fragility of Laura Nyro. Although von Otter possesses a voice of surpassing beauty, its display is not her central purpose here, and she is content, for the most part, to sing with unaffected simplicity, sweetness and a near-absence of diva mannerisms.
Costello contributed music or lyrics to half of the 18 songs, sang along or played on several others, and produced the whole album, all with immaculate taste and intelligence. The backing ensemble is superbly flexible, moving with ease from genre to genre.
If crossover music can transcend purely commercial considerations, it will lose much of its stigma. Those who want "pure" von Otter or "pure" Costello can easily find it elsewhere, and it would be narrow and pedantic in the extreme to discourage two past masters in their respective fields from working together. The soprano grew up listening to pop music as well as to Schubert, while Costello has been a von Otter devotee ("Her voice affected me like no other") since he attended a performance of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust in 1989. They met as equals, they understand each other, and their consummation is a work of art.