match the stars

With every new endeavor Elvis Costello seems to lose a few vitriolic fans pining for another Armed Forces, but his collaborations have always proven to be rewarding introduction. The meeting between Costello and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter will inevitably be compared to both Costello’s song cycle with the Brodsky Quartet (The Juliet Letters) and his collaboration with Burt Bacharach (Painted From Memory), but apart from some coincidental similarities in graphic design, there’s a clear difference. For The Stars doesn’t attempt to revisit the dark intensity of Painted From Memory, and there is no unifying concept to marry the album’s individual songs. For The Stars is much closer to being a modern version of the way pop LPs were crafted before rock and roll existed, in an era when top singers and songwriters were matched together with a sophisticated result in mind.

For The Stars draws on the expected pool of new and familiar Elvis Costello songs, but the album is distinguished by the shared favourites they recorded at each other’s recommendation (the two exchanged suggestions via tape before beginning recording sessions in Anne Sofie von Otter’s native Stockholm). The album’s 18 songs (chosen from 27 tracks they recorded over a two week period) include seldom-covered material by Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, ABBA and Tom Waits. Naturally, von Otter’s interpretations of songs from Pet Sounds and Revolver are the first tracks to command curiosity. She infuses a stunning amount of warmth into “You Still Believe In Me” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and “For No One” is one of the rare Beatles interpretations that elicits kind comparisons to the original. There is an almost serene moment in “Broken Bicycles/Junk,” a genius splicing of Tom Waits and McCartney as if the two songs were always meant to be together. The accordionist on this track is Benny Andersson, making a cool unification of ABBA, the Beatles, Costello and Waits. The delicate rendering of “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” even improves on the arrangement of the original (from ABBA’s last LP, The Visitors), and a von Otter selection made famous by Nina Simone, “The Other Woman,” is just as moving.

“No Wonder” (which he’d written specifically for von Otter) displays Costello’s underrated inventiveness as a producer, making the opening track seem somehow reminiscent of Blonde on Blonde. The album’s instrumentation is subtle and powerful, and von Otter’s vocals are graceful and precise. She redefines several of Costello’s recent compositions, most notably “I Want To Vanish” and “This House Is Empty Now” (which features Steve Nieve). In spite of the difference between the two vocally, Costello’s occasional presence as singer is a pleasure. His background vocal on Ron Sexsmith’s sweet “April After All” and the alternating approach of “For the Stars” create a pleasing compliment; their remake of “Shamed Into Love” (originally the fruit another collaboration, written by Costello and Rubén Blades) becomes a jazzy sensual masterwork.

©2002 Rodney E Griffith. All rights reserved.