With his new album The Juliet Letters, Elvis Costello has, by some people's reckoning, reinvented himself for about the thousandth time. Naturally, that's the sort of terminology he finds foolish.
"I've been hearing that sort of talk for, I don't know, the last 10 or 15 years," he says. "It's not like that. You're just doing things. I'm too busy doing the stuff to think, 'I think I'll reinvent myself today.' What am I, Superman?"
Well, seemingly, yes, sometimes. Early in his recording career Costello became legendary for his maniacally prodigious output, issuing a brilliant album or two a year. The pace has slowed since, but the ambition is no less unbridled. Gloriously risky and satisfyingly accomplished, "The Juliet Letters" is a song cycle written and performed by and for string quartet and voice.
Costello collaborated with the well-regarded London ensemble the Brodsky Quartet, and they found their loosely unifying theme in a newspaper article that told of a mysterious Veronese academic who answered letters sent from around the world to the very late Juliet Capulet — a sort of romantic continental equivalent of those American folks who might take it upon themselves to answer Santa's mail.
Only one song on the album is explicitly based upon this real-life touchstone, but all lyrics take the form of missives, ranging from standard lost-love letters to hate mail to battlefield correspondence to wistful notes from beyond the grave.
Most of the album's 20 pieces of music — and its lyrics, too, surprisingly — were written in full collaboration with "the Brodskys," as Costello calls his comrades in Capulet-isms. Costello and the quartet will perform Juliet in concert at Royce Hall on March 14, along with surprises, as promised in this recent conversation.
Question: Were you surprised to find out the members of the Brodsky Quartet were coming to your shows in London after you'd been going to theirs for some time?
Answer: I was. I suppose some people in the classical world imagine all people in rock 'n' roll are barbarians. And equally we have the misconception that they're all very, very refined people, that they're probably all sons of counts or something.
And, of course, the truth is that the contrary case applies to both worlds. There are some wild animals in rock 'n' roll music and in the classical world, and there's some genuinely sensitive people — and some affectedly sensitive people — in both worlds as well.
I think a preconceived idea of people who have no knowledge of classical music whatsoever is that the string quartet is some nimsy little thing with people in powdered wigs — sort of playing in the corner in a shopping mall, the way they sometimes do to denote sophistication. Well, play those people Bartok's quartets, and tell me that it isn't as wild and abandoned as any punk music that's ever been made up — yet it's all composed, it's not accidental. You can bring both things to it.