Elvis Costello has liberally peppered his career with eye-raising stylistic excursions made on creative whims; departures into soul (Get Happy!!), country (Almost Blue), Tin Pan Alley (Imperial Bedroom), and roots (King of America) had all been realized in less than ten years after his professional debut. Still, despite acclimating his audience to his finicky, muse-driven impulses, many were taken aback upon the release of 1993’s The Juliet Letters, his classical song cycle collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet. Perhaps it was a musician’s mid-life artistic crisis that drove him to so radical (and in some cases, alienating) a choice. After all, artists at middle age face that Catch-22 fork in the road that compels them to either recycle old habits or strike out in strange new territory. Naturally, Costello chose the latter; he’s never acquired the taste for predictability.
In hindsight, The Juliet Letters holds up as probably his most successful (certainly his most intriguing) foray into either the classical or jazz world. Subsequent attempts to reinvent himself as a balladeer or jazz singer have been less adventurous and more posed, like applications to canonical academia. Ever since The Juliet Letters, roughly every other release affords Costello his more genteel indulgences (including collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Anne Sophie von Otter). Such a creative strategy was made all the more indefinite with his signing to Deutsche Grammophon earlier this decade. The label has taken charge of his non-rock endeavors, which so far have included an album of noirish torch songs (North) and a classical score for an Italian ballet (Il Songo).
My Flame Burns Blue, his third release for Deutsche Grammophon, features a live performance from the 2004 North Sea Jazz Festival with the Netherlands’ 52-piece Metropole Orkest. It’s a role—the guitarless, persona-free big man with the big band—that Costello has found himself slipping into with increased frequency as of late, naturally recalling his father, Ross MacManus, and his tenure as featured vocalist for the Joe Loss Orchestra. Though Costello’s choice of material is typically enticing (in addition to his originals are Charles Mingus’s “Hora Decubitis”, Billy Strayhorn’s “My Flame Burns Blue (Blood Count)”, and Dave Bartholomew’s “That’s How You Got Killed Before”), the Metropole Orkest is about as understated as a sledgehammer is gentle, rendering the setlist somewhat irrelevant. The performance of “That’s How You Got Killed Before”, in particular, lacks the playful fire of the version Costello cut previously with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band—the Metropole Orkest is a starched-shirts and pleated-pants kind of band, not so conducive to material that loses its luster when dumbed down by brassy wham-bam-slams.
Faring even worse under the crushingly egregious arrangements are Costello’s own songs. They’re all sullied with garish bombast both unsubtle and offensive: sobered haunts like “Almost Blue” and “Favourite Hour” are deprived of their pockets of shadow and secret in favor of gaudy bells and whistles. “Watching the Detectives”, which has the odd distinction of being one of Costello’s most acute and overplayed songs, is given the literalist treatment, its arrangement falling obviously somewhere between Sinatra cocktail hour and an episode of Dragnet. The crazed extravagance that crowds “Episode of Blonde” only further illuminates the complex personality crisis that plagued its original incarnation on When I Was Cruel.
Perhaps the biggest folly is the glitzy sprint through “Clubland”, which alternates between tacky Latin jazz and Broadway experimentation, both of which condescend to the song’s summoning of a palpable environment. It makes very little sense to treat these songs in such an unbecoming manner, with maudlin fanfare bludgeoning otherwise resilient examples of song craft. None of the versions presented on My Flame Burns Blue (which is being packaged as a two-disc set with the aforementioned Il Songo) harbor immediately recognizable insights. Costello’s itchy deviations (even those that fail) will remain persuasively valid as long as they function to move him forward (no matter how much the past-dwelling rockists may complain). Albums like My Flame Burns Blue, unfortunately, are best left forgotten, lest they muck up past histories through schmaltzy exhumation.