He used to be disgusted, then he was amused. Now, Elvis Costello — the original angry young man of the New Wave — seems to be simply charmed. Smiling, clean-shaven and wearing those red shoes the angels so covet, he comfortably donned a new persona as fifth member of a string quartet. We should all age so gracefully.
The Juliet Letters is, as has been widely publicized, a song cycle inspired by letters to Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet, which a professor at Verona had taken it upon himself to answer. Missives to “an imaginary woman — and a dead imaginary woman at that,” as Costello put it.
What is less often mentioned is that none of those letters to Juliet are actually in Costello’s song cycle. Instead, he and the Brodsky string quartet have made songs out of any kind of letter.
Love letters, yes — also junk mail, suicide notes, letters from the front and one communication by Ouija board. And they become any kind of song: Gershwinesque. Brecht-Weill. Beat poetry. The relationship to rock is tenuous, although you could trace a lineage to Costello’s “Shipbuilding.”
Still, it was a resolutely post-modern crowd that filled UCLA’s Royce Hall, and they cheered and stood and applauded frenetically.
While the audience was obviously familiar with the album, they still sat in hushed attention as the fivesome on the stark stage progressed through the tracks in order.
The acoustics in the hall were impeccable — live digital clarity — and the delicacy of the strings literally startled people into silence. When first violin Michael Thomas played the solo in “Expert Rites,” people gasped at its purity and grace. They laughed at “I Almost Had a Weakness”; they cried at “The First to Leave.”
It was a near-perfect show, really, until about the third of four encores, including a Tom Waits number, a Jerome Kern number and a Beach Boys number. Eighty-minute show, 40-minute encore. Even when people groaned as they stood for yet another ovation, Costello didn’t get the hint. And this from the guy who used to do 20 minutes and leave the stage in a huff. There has to be a happy medium here somewhere.