Spin, February 1993

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The Juliet Letters

The Brodsky Quartet & Elvis Costello

Hal Willner

Had I not already worked with Elvis Costello. I would immediately seek him out for a possible future collaboration, based on the beautiful and moving Juliet Letters. Inspired by the true story of a Veronese professor who answered letters written to Juliet Capulet, Costello has joined forces with the Brodsky Quartet to produce an hour-long suite for voices and strings, his voice working beautifully with the exquisite string arrangements. The Juliet Letters is an incredible journey, enjoyable without being highbrow, and ranks as one of Costello's best.

A short, almost fanfarish, instrumental opening ("Deliver Us") perfectly announces the setting. The arrangement recalls many moods, from Schubert to the movie scores of Miklos Rozsa The musical influences often touch off childhood nostalgia, moments in my life decades ago when the simplest melodies permanently ingrained themselves in my psyche. Yet despite the vast references, Costello and the quartet have composed something very much their own.

A long cello note sets up Costello's first vocal: "I don't know what I would do / If this letter should fall into / Other hands than it should pass through / for other eyes" As he sings, Costello suggests an almost Lux Radio Theatre quality — if you let yourself enter the narrator's world, you'll be in that old radio land. "Swine" is Gilbert and Sullivan in a Brecht-Weill mode, with Costello's voice cutting through almost unrecognizably: "You're a swine / and I'm saying / that's an insult to the pig." Yet there is no novelty or gimmickry involved; this is simply an extraordinary pop-classical record.

Costello's voice is incredibly strong throughout The Juliet Letters. He uses it to stunning effect on numbers such as "Expert Rites" and "Taking My Life in Your Hands," which would be a hit record on a more rational planet. "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" captures the golden age of musical theater perfectly, which is the happiest music around even if you're not a sentimental old Jew like me. And the pure emotion and total lack of pretension of "Dear Sweet Filthy World" is sure to test your cynicism quotient.

Somehow I feel strange writing about this album's separate tracks as I have; the record works best as a whole, from the beautiful "Sad Burlesque" and "Romeo's Seance" (the danceable string parts make me feel like Bugs Bunny dressed as Casanova strutting through the Piazza San Marco) to the near finale of "Damnation's Cellar" (combining the ghosts of Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby) The album's closing "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" provides a dark yet hopeful ending.

With LP number 14, Costello has taken his artistry to a new great place. At a time when most artists are playing it safe and repeating themselves over and over again, there are still some (such as Lou Reed with Magic and Loss) who understand that record-making can be on equal ground with literature and film as an art form. In the horrible '90s, we are lucky to have The Juliet Letters.


Spin, February 1993

Hal Willner reviews The Juliet Letters.

Lorne Michaels recalls EC's appearance on Saturday Night Live.


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Page scan.

Lorne Michaels interview

Bob Guccione, Jr.


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Is there actually a lot of spontaneity in the show like that Steve Martin example?

Yeah, well, as you saw with Sinead O'Connor — there was a spontaneous moment. There is a lot, there arc moments that are fortuitous. List year Dana Carvey had a piece called "Massive Head Wound Harry" where a dog ate a bandage off his head the dog was only supposed to lick the bandage but started to unravel it and Carvcy had to struggle to keep his wig on]. Those kinds of things happen, you know.

How do you feel about moments like Elvis Costello changing a song in midsong?

I remember exactly where I was at the time, I was sitting at home base, here, with Dan Aykroyd. Costello had, of course, picked his own two songs to do, so it wasn't as if we'd forced him. And all he did was another song from the same record. I guess when he started to perform, he just decided that he didn't want to do that song. And the only reason we rehearse them is so that we can set shots and lighting so that they look decent. But we never coerce people, we don't say, you must do your hit, or whatever. But I remember Danny and I sitting there and he looked at me and I said, "I think we're being hijacked here." And my attitude was there's nothing I can do about this. You know, he didn't burst into some right- or left-wing advocacy, he didn't sing "kill all the niggers" or "kill all the Jews," he just sang another song from his album. There have been incidents where people have behaved badly on the show. I don't consider his behavior bad.

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Cover and page scans.


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