Looking back on it, it's remarkable that Warner didn't sue Elvis Costello for making deliberately noncommercial, non-representative records, the way Geffen did with Neil Young in the '80s. After all, it's not just that he made a record as anti-pop as Mighty Like a Rose, it's that he followed it with a full-fledged classical album, The Juliet Letters -- "a song sequence for string quartet and voice," recorded with the Brodsky Quartet. It's inspired by a Verona professor who responded to letters addressed to Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet fame, too. Given this history, it's little wonder that the record didn't storm the charts, but it is remarkable that Warner, even with their reputation for being an artist's label, decided to release it, since this just doesn't fit anywhere -- not within pop (especially in the grunge-saturated 1993) and not within classical, either. Of course, that's precisely what's interesting about the record, and if interesting didn't signify any rewards with Mighty, it does here. This is a distinctive, unusual affair that, at its best, effectively marries chamber music with Beatlesque art pop. And there are a number of moments that work remarkably well on the record, such as "I Almost Had a Weakness" and "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe." True, these are the songs closest to straight-ahead Costello songs, yet they're still nice, small gems, and even if the rest of the record can be a little arch and awkward, it's not hard to admire what Costello and the Brodskys set out to do. And that's the problem with the record -- it's easy to intellectualize, even appreciate, what it intends to be, but it's never compelling enough to return to. More experiment than effective, then.
[The Juliet Letters was the last of Elvis Costello's albums from 1977 to 1996 to receive an expanded double-disc treatment in Rhino's extended reissue campaign, finally appearing on its own in March 2006. Given the unusual collaborative nature of the project, there wasn't as much unreleased music and rarities as there were for other Costello albums, so this second disc winds up as a clearing-house for highlights from Costello's art projects of the '90s. Eight of the 18 tracks date from the Meltdown Festival Elvis curated in 1995; two of these -- "Gigi" and "Deep Dead Blue" -- were originally issued as part of Deep Dead Blue, his EP with guitarist Bill Frisell, and there is one other song from that set, "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue." In addition to these songs from Meltdown, there are the three non-LP songs from the 1993 promotional EP Live at New York Town Hall: Jerome Kern's "They Didn't Believe Me," Tom Waits' "More Than Rain," and Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows." Also included is "She Moved Through the Fair," a Costello-sung traditional folk tune that appeared on the Brodsky Quartet's 1994 album Lament, and another Costello/Brodsky collaboration on "Lost in the Stars," plucked from the 1997 tribute album September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill, plus three parts of "Fire Suite" that were recorded with the Jazz Passengers and released originally on Roy Nathanson's 2000 LP Fire at Keaton's Bar & Grill. Considering the variety of sources, spanning the better part of the decade, it's not a big surprise that this disc isn't particularly cohesive -- particularly in comparison to its parent disc -- but there's a good batch of interesting music here. Not always good -- the version of "God Only Knows" is awkward, for instance -- but even the stumbles are worthwhile listening for those who appreciate The Juliet Letters, and the best of this, like "Fire Suite," is quietly sublime.]