These past few months have been a sort of prime time for established artists, whose new releases all failed to make the Major Statement. Some artists who played rather safely within their styles, such as Madonna and Peter Gabriel, released tepid material, while Prince and Neil Young reaffirmed their genius, if only on familiar ground. In contrast, Sinead O'Connor and Suzanne Vega experimented with other genres — big band standards and industrial noise, respectively. The attempts were remarkable only in their clumsiness. A distraught music fan could only pray that The Juliet Letters, Elvis Costello's newly-released collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, would be neither formula nor newfound flakiness.
Costello has never been a performer to avoid either temptation. He has had treadwater albums before, and one only needs to listen to 1981's Almost Blue, his "country" album, to know that budding experimentation may have its less than fragrant results. So when one is faced with the prospect of a "song sequence for string quartet and voice," The Juliet Letters seems daunting indeed. Yet he explicitly states in his liner notes that this partnership with his quartet (as versatile, though less well-known, as the Kronos four) is not mere dabbling or a forced synthesis of styles: "We wanted to explore the under-used combination of voice and string quartet, but were anxious to avoid that junkyard named 'Cross-Over.' This is no more my stab at 'classical music' than it is the Brodsky Quartet's first rock and roll album.
They all shared in the writing of lyrics and music, to the point where Costello could arrange the strings, and the players could pen the lyrics. One enjoys the organic relation between the singer and his cohorts. The songs are not quite pop, the music not quite classical, and yet it is not a forced compromise. Songs such as "I Almost Had a Weakness" or "This Offer is Unrepeatable" have the joy and playfulness of Gershwin or Sondheim. The meditative ballads and dirges achieve a more melancholy grace, from the suicide note of "Dear Sweet Filthy World" to the brooding "Who Do You Think You Are?," written as a postcard from a man to his estranged lover.
The success of the album is due to the tight chemistry of the Brodsky Quartet, who apparently have been playing together for 20 of their 30-odd years of age. Their new instrument, Costello's untrained but achingly beautiful voice, blends better than any Marilyn Horne or Jose Carreras. Tracks like "The Letter Home" are complex compositions that change tone and tempo with the mood of the lyrics. The touching sense of flow represents the confusion of writing to an old friend for the first time since a distant betrayal.
This interdependence of words and music provide the satisfaction of a cohesive project. In his copious but helpful liner notes, Costello explains how the lyrics are meant to convey the poetry of different types of written communication: graffiti on a wall ("Swine"), a love letter, a child's note ("Why?"), or a message from the afterlife as in the final song, the hopeful "The Birds Will Still Be Singing": "Banish all dismay / Extinguish every sorrow / If I‘m lost or I'm forgiven / The birds will still be singing." The message is as basic as the emotion it conveys, showing that Costello has grown up from being the clever Angry Young Man and has chosen to express his thoughts elegantly, but no less powerfully.
More important than achieving a Major Statement, he has moved closer to portraying the beauty and pain of everyday words and thoughts. If anything, it is a decisive step above all of his established compatriots, showing that he has remained consistent with his genius. but qualified for his explorations as well.