THE CALL from San Francisco made Elvis Costello's day. Ten years ago, the news that a mainstream West Coast pop radio station had put two of his latest songs on its playlist would not have caused his heart to beat a little faster; today, in the bar of a Holland Park hotel, he can't conceal his glee. 'That's great,' he chuckles down the phone. 'Both 'Romeo's Seance' and 'Jacksons, Monk and Rowe'. There'll be crowds at the airport]'
Costello's records have never been predictable - 'I'll use any bloody music,' he said once, 'I'll steal from anywhere' - but the new one is something else. The Juliet Letters is a 20-song collaboration with the Brodsky string quartet. No, he insists, it's not Elvis Costello Goes Classical; nor the Brodskys Go Rock'n'Roll. It's a quartet with voice, a vocal quintet. 'There is no known way to behave when confronted with it . . . Never been done before.' Grand claims from a man most people still remember as Mr Sneery in hornrims; every now and then he even drops the word Art.
Three years ago the Brodsky Quartet were performing their acclaimed Shostakovich series on the South Bank when one of their relatives spotted Costello in the audience. Costello had grown weary of pop concerts - too predictable, rather hammy - and had taken to concert halls in search of something more. In the Brodskys he found four brilliant musicians who achieved what he believed to be a unique balance: 'They played music, not just notes; they had painstaking respect for the music, but weren't overawed by it.' They also looked pretty cool, a fact not lost on their record company's marketing department. They wore Issey Miyake, supported the Pet Shop Boys, posed for album sleeves astride motorbikes.
By chance, the quartet also admired Costello and went to his shows. These days the mutual admiration is in danger of getting out of hand. 'Almost Blue played in my car for 11 years non-stop,' says violinist Michael Thomas. Costello feels a little queasy with this. 'That's 'cause it was stuck,' he offers.
They decided on a collaboration in November 1991, and had their theme within a month. Cait O'Riordan, the one-time Pogue who had become Costello's wife, saw a story in the Guardian about a Veronese professor who answered letters sent to Juliet Capulet. They liked both the poetic and rather tragic qualities of this, and initially thought of producing a cohesive narrative song-cycle between two lovelorn correspondents. This structure 'would have become like a prison', Costello believes, so they settled for a theme of letters. All letters, any letters: begging letters, chain letters, junk mail, suicide notes, kids' notes, solicitors' letters, letters written but never sent, letters sent that never arrived; everything but notes to the milkman. Musical themes were equally diverse: baroque, systems, folky, funk, Fifties light. You can detect Schubert and Bartok, Sondheim and Weill. It's a daunting work, full of intensity and intelligence. You should adore it after three plays.
AT 37, Costello is not new to classical composition or arrangement. Strings featured on many of his lush Beatle-ish songs on Imperial Bedroom (1982), he worked with Richard Harvey on his soundtrack for Alan Bleasdale's GBH (1991), and he appeared with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall. But this collaboration was a five-way split, not just a temporary backing band. 'It's not Frank Sinatra and the Hollywood String Quartet,' Costello says, referring to an album recorded during a musician's strike for which it seems that Nelson Riddle wrote large-scale orchestral charts and just reduced them for a four-piece.
Each member of the quartet contributed their own lyrics. To hear it described now, it sounds like school homework. They all went home and returned the next morning having written their own words: by chance everyone wrote a suicide letter.
Death wears a big hat throughout. People talk about their destiny, the afterlife, immortality. One includes some text Costello received on the eve of the Gulf war from a woman who 'enlisted in the military needing funds for college / I'm 23 years old and if I do get home alive / I imagine I may think again . . .'
'Pop music more and more denies age, let alone death,' Costello says. 'If it does deal with death it's very self-conscious, very much in a Hallowe'en-mask way. But classical writers have always considered these themes, because they have always drawn their texts from poets, often the Romantics. Some of the greatest composers are literally haunted by death.
'A suicide letter, in which the writer changes from having bravado, to admitting their faults, to just being resigned to death - that's a song you wouldn't even attempt to write in a rock band. It would just be silly.'
There is a grim finality to most of the letters. 'Most letters do seem to carry important news,' says violinist Ian Belton. 'People don't write for the purpose of writing anymore, they write to say something serious.'
'We tried doing a letter from an aunt in Derry just writing trivial stuff,' Costello says, 'but there's no way you can get the peculiarities of the colloquialisms and phrasing over.'
The sleeve notes speak of 'the absence of much of the crafty language of the songwriter', which may be taken as a reference to Costello's own past - his fondness for wordplay so intricate that it verged on the painful. You remember, when he used to 'step on the brake to get out of her clutches', and 'speak double- dutch to a real double duchess'.
'I have to live with certain preconceived ideas about me,' Costello says. 'I'm Mr Angry, Mr Revenge, and I only do tricky wordplay. But I'd like to see where this wordplay is on the last four or five records I made - it's just not there, it's an optical illusion. There are certain newspapers that have been writing the same review of my records for the last 10 years - just substituting the titles. Maybe the wordplay thing is not so much a reflection of my complexities as a writer, so much as the banality of so much else that's going on. I simply try to put stuff in that repays repeated listening.'
WHEN I first met Costello six years ago (during one of those tricky identity crises in which he variously called himself by his real name, Declan McManus, the Imposter or Napoleon Dynamite), he said: 'Goodbye Cruel World was the only bad record I ever made, and a lot of bands would be very happy if they ever made a record that good.' I said I thought that sounded a little arrogant. 'That's just the way it is,' he said. Today he says: 'I like all my records. There's something good in all of them.' He says he used to worry about where it was all leading, about something called career progression. Now he says, 'It's not a boxing match, it's just life. If you don't like it, buy another record.' And so we have. A few folks have stuck with him through the last 16 years - through the early mealy-mouthed cynicism, the Stax tributes, the country sojourns, the over-layered technical experiments, the love stuff, the political stuff. Some even bought those collaborations with George Jones, Madness, Squeeze and most recently Hal Willner for his Charles Mingus tribute. But most have drifted in and out, which suits him fine. 'You gain people and lose people all the time. I'm not particularly bothered about losing people; some people seem paranoid that they must always build on the product-identification principle, where their music must always have that identifiable quality in case they lose one listener. I just write and hope for the best.'
Beforehand, Ian Belton imagined Costello to be 'like a lot of pop stars, manic, over the top', but found the opposite and was struck by his knowledge of classical music. Costello's past is littered with alcohol binges('there were sleazy stories, but you missed them]'), but this lunchtime it's all coffee and mineral water, and he looks fit. The Jerry Garcia beard has been trimmed, by popular demand. 'I just grew it to piss everyone off.'
But, hey, he's still angry] 'This Sad Burlesque', one of the best tracks on the new album, is a letter written on the eve of the last election. 'Now they can recall being young and idealistic / Before wading knee-deep in hogwash and arithmetic / The pitying smirk / The argument that runs like clockwork . . .' The letter contains a postscript, written the day after: 'Well by now you know the worst of it . . .'
'At about 1am, when I could see the way it was going, I opened up the wine and oblivion beckoned,' Costello says. 'John Major isn't that grey clown that he's sometimes made out to be. He's not just this twerp who isn't up to the job. He showed his true colours the moment his job was on the line - he's a ruthless little bastard. In my opinion, anyway.'
THE ALBUM has received only three public airings, but is being taken on a brief world tour next month. With the exception of Jacqueline Thomas, the cellist, the group performs standing up, with Costello in the middle. Lots of black, lots of bow-ties, lots of gothic. Costello grips a heavy lyric book in place of the guitar.
A problem arose at the first performance: what to do for an encore. Initially they performed a couple of letters again, but are now considering reworking some earlier Costello favourites, 'but only if they can be dismantled to suit the mood and collaborative nature of the rest of the project. If we get this piece over to an audience, and we open up people's ears and take away any perceived terror of what we're doing, the crassest thing you could do after that is to come back out and do a quartet arrangement of 'Alison', just to get cheap applause.' You'll hear more traditional stuff from Costello later in the year. He's written an entire album for Wendy James, formerly of Transvision Vamp. 'They're beautifully written, melodious songs that will last forever,' James says. 'There are some things about my personality that he has understood without it ever being something he could pick up in print, and all that must come from the letter.' Letter? Depressed, James had sent Costello a note 'about my general dissatisfaction with everything going on in my life . . . I was asking for help, but nothing specific.' A few weeks later she had an album's worth of songs.
Costello has also made Kojak Variety, a cover album of some favourite songs from 1930 to 1970. It's a modest offering. 'When I was young, records came out called In a Latin Mood or whatever, and that's exactly what they were. What's wrong with doing a record like that? Now every rock record that comes out is Nietzsche and Kafka and Michelangelo all rolled into one - every record has great claims for it, and most of them aren't true. Some are just records, and it would be a lot better if they were just presented like that.
'Increasingly I question what people do with rock'n'roll records. Recently I heard quite a few people say: 'Oh, this record's great, I put it on in the background.' Frightening. I never heard of rock'n'roll records being put on in the background before.'
'The Juliet Letters' (Warner Bros) is out tomorrow. A video of last night's BBC programme, including songs from the album, goes on sale 25 Jan. Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 22 Feb, and London Drury Lane, 28 Feb; returns only.
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