When Elvis Costello and the Brodsky String Quartet decided to compose and record an album together, they had to combine not only voice and violins but also the contrasting assumptions of rock-and-roll songs and classical chamber music. These two traditions differ in many respects, but perhaps the most perplexing problem for Costello and the Brodskies was melody. In pop music, the melody is meant to imitate the natural flow and rhythm of conversation, and thus give the vocal the illusion of everyday speech. In classical music, the emphasis is on melodic invention, and any text that may be attached is often rendered indecipherable as a result.
As Costello and the Brodsky Quartet wrestle with this problem on The Juliet Letters (Warner Bros.), they win some and they lose some. But with 20 numbers, even a .500 winning percentage gives you 10 successful songs, and how many albums can boast as much? Costello abandons the crutch of his own guitar and throws himself into the string quartet context with a courage that makes even the wrong turns on this recording fascinating.
The title stems from a "tiny newspaper item about a Veronese academic who had taken on the task of replying to letters addressed to 'Juliet Capulet,'" according to Costello's liner notes. Unable to decide which was stranger — someone who would write to a 16th-century woman (dead even in her fictional realm) or someone who would answer those missives — Costello and his colleagues wrote the music and possible texts for such letters and their replies. Eventually they added letters that had nothing to do with Juliet, but the result is still the first epistolary CD.
After a short instrumental prologue, the album begins with "For Other Eyes," a letter to Juliet from a woman consumed with jealousy. The mid-tempo modal melody climbs in small increments, and rather than repeating itself, passes on to further variations. This works musically, but it contorts the vocal so much that any sense of the singer talking to us is lost. Even more artificial is the next track, "Swine," an anonymous insult letter delivered with staccato string accents and a high nasal bray. Costello is an effective singer within his range, but when the quartet lures him into the upper octaves, his voice strains annoyingly.
It's not until the third song, "Expert Rites," that The Juliet Letters shows the potential of the Costello-Brodsky collaboration. The minor-key melody, with its hints of a torch ballad, is hummable enough to draw us into the somber mood, and the lyrics, even without the conventional verse-chorus structure, have enough rhymes and even meter to make the vocals sound comfortable. In a hushed voice, Costello assumes the persona of the Veronese professor, admitting that his heart too has been broken.
At the turn of the century, the British music hall, with its small pit orchestra, boasted a pop music none too far removed from classical chamber music. So it makes sense that Costello and the Brodskies would reach back to that sound for the album's three most accessible numbers. The best of them is "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe," which sets its lyrics about lost innocence to a very bouncy beat and an actual pop hook.
The two best songs on The Juliet Letters come near the end. "The First to Leave" is a letter from a widower to his now-dead atheist wife, asking if she's now in Heaven, Hell or anywhere at all. The melancholy tone of the lyrics is supported by the steady throb of Jacqueline Thomas's cello and Paul Cassidy's viola set against the slippery slide of Michael Thomas's and Ian Belton's violins. The dead woman responds on the album's final song, employing the majestic melody to reassure her husband; whether she is lost or forgiven, "The Birds Will Still Be Singing." Costello's voice and the four string instruments work as one on these two songs with powerful results, suggesting that chamber-rock has possibilities that have barely been scratched.