This Sad Burlesque: Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters at 30

The New Wave icon entered 1993 with strings attached

The Juliet Letters score sheet (Image: Amazon)

It’s always been difficult, if not impossible, to pin any definitive description on Elvis Costello.

Early on, he was typecast as an upstart insurgent when, fueled by the nascent sounds of Britain’s post-punk era, he made his debut as one of several English rabble-rousers. Never one to be pigeonholed, it was both his nerd-like appearance and edgy, irrepressible rock and roll that easily set him apart.

Nevertheless, Costello’s consistently proven that image isn’t everything, and for nearly 50 years he’s emerged as one of today’s most prolific musical chameleons. Seemingly boundless in his ambitions, he’s ventured into jazz, country, film, R&B, blues and pop — the latter courtesy of his collaborations with Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach — while also probing the far reaches of more stately sounds incorporating pure classical conceits.

Elvis Costello with the Brodsky Quartet (Image: Warner Bros.)

Costello’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet — violinists Ian Belton and Michael Thomas, Paul Cassidy on viola and cellist Jaqueline Thomas — may qualify as one of his fringe efforts, but the sentiment and sincerity shared in their sole album, The Juliet Letters, suggests it was much more than merely a whim. Costello called it “a song sequence for string quartet and voice… a new thing.” 

Still, many Costello fans found it difficult to fully decipher. Most of the songs are seeped in dark drama, and Costello’s plaintive vocals are scarcely alleviated by the Brodsky’s soaring strings. That’s not to say there’s any lack of intrigue; “For Other Eyes,” “Why?,” “Who Do You Think You Are,” and “Expert Rites” are decidedly descriptive, as befitting a song cycle of this sort. The concept revolved around a series of dramatic letters (presumably) sent from Romeo to his beloved Juliet, and though they clearly take liberties with Shakespeare’s original drama, the depth of devotion is readily apparent. Credit, then, goes to the entire ensemble, each of whom participated in the composition. The album itself was recorded entirely live minus any additional overdubs. 

Given the stirring string arrangements — “Dead Letter” offers but one example of the quartet’ s conceptual creativity — classical music aficionados would tend to find The Juliet Letters more to their liking as opposed to those who generally crave Costello’s rockier efforts. That fact was reflected in the album’s generally lackluster reviews and its failure to reach the upper strata of the American charts. It did peak within the top 20 in the U.K., but it generally failed to make any sort of indelible impression, other than its conceptual story arc and obtuse nature, even for someone as effortlessly adventurous and eccentric as Costello himself.

Elvis Costello with the Brodsky Quartet The Juliet Letters, Warner Bros. Records 1993

Notably, The Juliet Letters wasn’t the final album that brought Costello into classical realms. In 2001, he collaborated with Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter for the album For the Stars. That was followed in 2002 by Il Sogno, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and then a year after that, the release of Truth, a series of jazz and classical infused torch songs. Notably, those latter three albums were released by the well-respected classical label Deutsche Grammophone.

At this point in Costello’s career if he’ll return to recording classical music, but given his penchant for abruptly shifting styles, it certainly can’t be ruled out. After all, a sudden switch in stance is the very definition of classic Costello.

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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