Several of the characters on Elvis Costello’s new album share a common dilemma: Their aims are true, but this world is killing them. The once and sometimes still Declan MacManus has covered a lot of ground since emerging as the most gifted of the angry young singer-songwriters of the late Seventies. With The Juliet Letters, Costello takes another bold step in a new direction.
Collaborating on the music and text with the string virtuosos in England’s Brodsky Quartet, the singer crafts a series of dramatic ballads in which passages written by male and female characters of varying ages and degrees of sanity tell stories of love, betrayal and death. Shakespeare’s most famous tragic heroine serves as a metaphor for the disillusionment they all experience in some way. (The album’s title derives from a newspaper item spotted by Costello’s wife, about a professor in Verona who discovered some mail addressed to Juliet Capulet.)
As sung by Costello against a spare, eerily emotive backdrop of violin, viola and cello, these accounts — a suspicious wife’s growing resentment (“For Other Eyes”), a delusional man’s plea for recognition (“Taking My Life in Your Hands”), a jaded writer’s pity for a naive soldier (“I Thought I’d Write to Juliet”) — are alternately biting and rueful, evoking the sardonic humor and bleak beauty of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
The Juliet Letters concludes with an extraordinary trio of songs. In “The First to Leave,” a man of intense faith writes a comforting note to be read by his lover after he dies; in “Damnation’s Cellar,” Costello summons all his savage wit to envision the kinds of immortality mortals might wish for and the kinds they might deserve. Finally, in “The Birds Will Still Be Singing,” these considerations merge as a dead man tries to downplay his legacy. “Eternity stinks, my darling,” he assures the woman who mourns him; “Spare me lily white lilies/With the awful perfume of decay…. Even when you know it’s over/It’s too much to say.”
Of course, one of the strengths of Costello at his best has been knowing how much is too much and how much is just enough. While a project as ambitious as The Juliet Letters might have wound up mired in sentimentality and pretension, the singer and his collaborators have created something that is as accomplished as it is moving.