Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: The Juliet Letters

In high School I read a book called Who's Who in Hell by Robert Chalmers and it had this somber moment where the main character is in a funeral for his wife and "The Birds Will Still Be Singing," the closing song on The Juliet Letters, begins to play, at her request, and the way he gets through it is by pressing a needle into his finger. After reading this, I thought to myself that I had to hear this song.

It took about a year and several of his albums before I finally found the CD so dearly alluded to in Chalmers' book and I got to hear one of Elvis Costello's most inventive departures.

The album, a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, is a "song sequence for string quartet and voice" inspired by an article about a professor in Verona who answered letters addressed to Juliet Capulet.

It's a very unconventional pairing, the Brodsky Quartet is famous in it's own right for beautiful orchestration and performances of classic works but to hear only string instruments backing what could very well be rock or pop songs can be distracting at first.

After the first listen and getting over the intentional hoarseness in songs like "Swine" (not easy considering it's the third cut on the album) and "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" I became enraptured with most of the songs on this album.

Each song is modeled after a letter, "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" is a spam letter; "Dear Sweet Filthy World" is a suicide note, but there is one that is completely heartbreaking and stunning based on a letter Costello received from a soldier in Iraq during the first Gulf War.

"I Thought I Write To Juliet" is almost like an epic song from a musical because of the different vocal performances by Costello along with a sweeping and haunting orchestration by the quartet. The song also has quotes directly lifted from the letter:

"This is a letter of thanks, as I'm so bored here in I can't say where
So I'm writing to people that I may never meet
And I was thinking of something you said..."

I like to think that last line is referring to the chorus in "Oliver's Army" that goes "And I would rather be anywhere else but here today," which I remember often when pressed with a particularly annoying task, however, it seems like nothing considering what soldiers like Constance go through.

I think that same feeling inspires Costello's rant-like commentary upon receiving Constance's letter in which he confronts the situations both the soldier and the singer are in, desperately asking for comfort and how to respond when you have never been in the same situation. The music reflects this perfectly ranging from sweeping to frantic and ending in a chilling note that sounds like air raid siren warning of imminent danger.

It's possibly my favorite song in the album.

Then there's "The Birds Will Still Be Singing." People always talk about songs played at funerals, including "Free Bird," but this one seems essential, almost like it needs to be heard during such a loss. A solemn and final goodbye expressed, as Costello wrote in the liner notes for this album, "from a place beyond death."

"Eternity stinks, my darling, that's no joke," Costello sings surrounded by strings that sound somber but hopeful as he reaches the song's refrain, a reminder that not matter what, life goes on. I've always enjoyed its sentiment and also the confrontation with mortality it represents. When he sings: "If I'm lost or I'm forgiven, the birds will still be singing," it's not only about moving on after the closing track in your life but it address the fear of whether there is nothingness or an afterlife, however, that question shouldn't really matter because for others there will always be songs to keep on singing.

Classics: Jacksons, Monk and Rowe, The Birds Will Still Be Singing

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