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.