I try to imagine crowds watching Costello in his young punk days belting out ‘Pump It Up’ and then immediately fast-forwarding to this, or his classic country album, or his collaboration with Burt Bacharach. The man has certainly carved out a unique career path.
Among those is ‘I Almost Had a Weakness,’ a caustic letter from a dying aunt to the suddenly sycophantic relatives who would lay claim to her fortune.
I’ve often wondered what the songs from this album would sound like done in a more traditional fashion, with, say, The Attractions backing Costello instead of The Brodsky Quartet. I assume he’s played at least a few of these songs in concert over the years, but I don’t own any of those recordings.
1993’s The Juliet Letters wasn’t a pop album with strings, it was a suite composed for strings and vocals. And if Costello’s voice sometimes had to strain to hit the operatic notes he composed, so be it.
Costello got the idea to write an album of correspondence after hearing a story about a professor in Verona who took it upon himself to answer the many letters still addressed to Shakespeare’s Juliet that reach the Italian town. That story gave the album its title, though the Juliet connection shows up on just a couple of songs. The rest take the form of letters of one sort or another, including a piece of junk mail.
OK, when an artist’s new release is a concept album about written correspondence performed entirely with a string quartet, he’s admittedly opening himself up to charges of pretentiousness. So yes, The Juliet Letters is sort of by definition a pretentious album.
But the thing is, it works. I’ve never listened to a string quartet in my life but I love every minute of this album. And of course that’s due to the songwriting, which is uniformly excellent on this collection. At least half of these 20 songs are as melodically sublime and lyrically clever as anything Costello has written for guitars and pianos as opposed to violins and cellos.