KEVIN DAVIS: “Skeleton,” a parting-ways lament composed by the Brodsky Quartet’s Michael Thomas and released in a live version on Rhino’s Juliet Letters reissue, is a rarity among rarities in the Elvis Costello discography: a Costello-fronted performance of an original song by a member of one of his supporting ensembles. Excepting his collaborative works with comparably high-profile songwriters like Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, etc., we don’t often see Costello relinquishing full composer duties to his bandmates in this particular capacity; he’s always been a songwriter first and foremost in the sense that his songs seem to direct his musical vision—his general movement from one project to the next—as opposed to the other way around, and as such one rarely gets the impression that he reaches out to supporting personnel in the hopes that they’re going to be the ones supplying the material. This speaks pretty loudly about the collaborative nature of Costello’s relationship with the Brodsky Quartet, which for all intents and purposes was a major turning point for Costello as a professional musician in the formal sense; it was during this time that Elvis really committed himself to learning to properly read music, and The Juliet Letters signifies perhaps his first longform attempt at composing within a genre of music that had little to no discernible overlap with his discography to that point. As such, the Brodsky Quartet does not represent a group of hired hands coming on board to make some songwriter’s latest batch of tunes more palatable; this was a collaborative project of mutual influence in which the star is recast as the student, learning to compose and perform within another musical language without forsaking his own.
JORGE FARAH: That’s exactly right; one of the things I love most about Elvis Costello’s collaborations is that, more than just about any other established artist I can think of, they are treated as real collaborations in the truest sense of the word, where each party brings a unique vision that shapes the finished product in equal measure. It’s easy to take a look at the Brodsky Quartet and immediately put them in the category of “backing musicians,” considering they are 4 instrumentalists supporting one singer. But there’s a lot more to it than that; on the surface, we’ve seen albums like The Juliet Letters populating the oeuvre of pop singers looking to broaden their sonic palette or gain some “serious musician” cred, but very seldom do these collections amount to more than dressed-up pop songs or simple genre exercises, the kind of musical tourism Costello himself is sometimes baselessly accused of by his more myopic critics. However, the dreaded term “cross-over” is one of the last words I’d ever use to describe these songs; they exist in their own unique terms, borne out of a genuine spirit of musical curiosity and exploration. This is, I think, largely due to the fact that Costello was as much of a Brodsky fan as the Brodskys themselves were Elvis Costello fans; the mutual admiration shows in their approach to the material.
“Skeleton” is a beautiful example of how a song can effectively stop time and linger on a moment
The Juliet Letters is made up of songs that are biting, sardonic, and often very funny—much funnier than one would expect an album of “chamber music” to be—but also some stunningly moving compositions, such as “The Birds Will Still Be Singing” and “Taking My Life in Your Hands”; songs where the compositional sophistication and classical references augment the emotive nature of the songs instead of obscuring it. But I don’t think there’s a more outright beautiful and emotional song in the collection than “Skeleton,” which didn’t even make the cut. Conceived as encore material long after the initial batch of songs were set and never properly recorded for an album, all we have left is this gorgeous live version that was relegated to bonus-track status. Thank God we have that. This is truly one of those deep-cut treasures that obsessives scour the far reaches of an artist’s discography to find; a beautiful example of how a song can effectively stop time and linger on a moment, mining every bit of the emotion in it, and then quietly let it pass through as the melody resolves. It’s a story-song, setting the scene in the very first line, “watched your train as it went out of sight,” and then elaborating on the feeling of profound loss that accompanies the immediate aftermath of a breakup. It’s not unlike mourning for the dead, when your routine is still so thoroughly fixated on the other and you have yet to rewire your brain to compensate for that gap. There is a constant and profound sense of sorrow in the lyrics and the melody, and a constant state of surprise for not having the other person there. “I keep waking up to find you gone” conveys an ache that feels like it takes forever to pass over. I love this song, and I’m glad we have it. Even if it didn’t make the album, it’s a testament to how the entire project transcends its status as a public record of Elvis Costello’s musical education.
It’s a sophisticated composition, yet never at the expense of immediate pleasure
KEVIN DAVIS: “Skeleton” is a great example of this educational process working in reverse, and a gorgeous blend of the Brodsky Quartet’s traditional chamber music with the more pop-oriented balladry of Costello’s recent albums at the time. It’s one of those songs that reads somewhat trivially on paper, but phrase by phrase becomes an achingly poignant expression of loss and separation; the chords seem tailor-made to guide the gradual evolution of the melody, which seems tailor-made to support the emotional burden of the uncomplicated but touching lyrics. Not unlike many of Costello’s own great ballads (“Almost Blue,” “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4”), the song makes a satisfying first impression but becomes better and better as you begin to nail down its structure—the way each verse tells its own complete musical story with its own dramatic climax (“We were meant to keep love from our door”) and resolution (“Why can’t I have more of your tenderness?”), and the way all the musical themes repeat from verse to verse but never twice within any one verse. It’s a sophisticated composition, yet never at the expense of immediate pleasure or accessibility; one would hardly call it commercial or even “catchy,” but it also doesn’t go down any less smooth for being slightly harmonically askew. It’s first and foremost a sad, beautiful breakup song, like so many Costello had sung before, but in a fresh musical and lyrical language. It represents an unusual triumph in an obscure corner of the Elvis Costello discography, as well as an interesting aesthetic flipside to the highly literary, very linguistically dense Juliet Letters. It makes us wish Elvis and the Quartet would reunite for another album of songs just like it.
Deep-cut, bonus-track, out-of-print live nugget that it is, “Skeleton” isn’t available on our enduring Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist, but there are plenty of other widely available but unjustly overlooked songs for you to enjoy: