Elvis Costello is what some people call a renaissance musician. His career began in the late ‘70s during the punk/new wave movement with his first album My Aim Is True (1977, Stiff Records), and then with his backing band The Attractions. Since then he has released over 25 albums (including two box sets, three collaboration LPs, four “best of” collections and a covers album), and his styles have ranged from punk to pop to country to jazz.
The only problem with some extremely talented renaissance entertainers is that after a large number of accomplishments, they sometimes feel as though they can do no wrong. It’s as if they think “I am so great that whatever I put out, my fans will love it!” (A prime example of this would be basketball phenomenon Shaquille O’Neal, who will soon be releasing his fifth rap CD.)
On Costello’s latest project, he has collaborated with world-renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter and released For the Stars, a collection of contemporary songs as interpreted by von Otter. Focusing this time on arranging and producing, he has moved the Stockholm-born opera chanteuse out of her element and into the pop world, motivated by his love of her voice.
Although this is their first recorded collaboration, Costello and von Otter have worked together in the past. In 1996, Costello wrote a song cycle for The Brodsky Quartet (for whom he composed The Juliet Letters in 1993) entitled “Three Distracted Women”, which was written specifically for von Otter’s voice and was given its world premiere in Paris but never released commercially.
And let the record show that von Otter has an incredible range and a beautiful voice. It is understandable that she has made a name for herself in operatic circles around the world. Let the record further show that this critic considers himself to be eclectic, renaissance, quirky and all those other metaphors used to describe one with a wide range of musical tastes. However, I was less than impressed by her foray into contemporary music.
Von Otter breezes hospital-clean through 18 tracks written by such legendary artists as Fleshquartet (“Rope”), Tom Waits and Paul McCartney (“Broken Bicycles/Junk”), The Beach Boys (“Don’t Talk”, from the classic Pet Sounds album), ABBA (“Like an Angel Passing Through My Room”), The Beatles (“For No One”), as well as a handful by Costello. The music itself, though it features Costello in one way or another on nearly every track, is very light, airy, snooty and clean. Not clean in a perfect production way, but clean in a dainty, privileged, white-gloves kind of way. In a word, it’s a very sterile disc.
Being a huge Elvis Costello fan, I was anticipating much, much more than I got. The press release for For the Stars spoke of Costello taking von Otter out of her normal element, and putting her into a different world, the world of contemporary music. This disc sounds as if he made things a bit too “at home” for her. I was expecting an operatic voice over contemporary music. What I got was operatic versions of contemporary songs. I might as well listen to the Metallica S&M disc, or the Beatles Symphonic Orchestra discs. At least I wouldn’t have nearly fallen asleep while driving and playing those collections, which is more than I can say for this one.
My apologies to Mr. Costello and Ms. von Otter, but For the Stars is for the birds. Maybe it works for the strictly disciplined opera/classical music fan, but not for those of us who dig consciousness. And now, a word of advice for the rest of us: Elvis Costello’s Spike album was just re-released. Let’s go get it, and leave this one for the snobs.