This collaboration between the esteemed classical mezzo-soprano and the erstwhile king of new wave might easily have been stilted, but von Otter's remarkably expressive voice -- enhanced on some tunes by Costello -- is a perfect vehicle for his literary sensibility. Recorded in the Stockholm studio where ABBA laid down its paradigmatic pop, von Otter and Costello make beautiful music. Not only are Costello's originals as graceful as ever (the new "No Wonder" and title track coexist effortlessly with older Costello tunes such as "Baby Plays Around" and "I Want to Vanish"), but the cover versions are also inspired. Von Otter does Brian Wilson more than proud with two Pet Sounds selections, seamlessly joins Tom Waits's "Broken Bicycles" and Paul McCartney's "Junk" (a Costello suggestion), and revives Nina Simone's coquette-noir "Shamed Into Love" with taste and tease.
The album is both low-key and insinuating. The Fleshquartet, a group of classically trained Swedish string players, is wonderfully understated -- particularly on the eerie, haunting "Rope" and a very modern update of the Beatles' "For No One." Von Otter even gives ABBA its due, recasting its "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room" as a Nordic art song. Also helping out: longtime Attractions pianist Steve Nieve and former Dave Edmunds/Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner. Costello has bent genres for years; by the mid-'90s, however, he had detoured into classical and more highfalutin pop, with mixed results. His work with the Brodsky Quartet was more promise than delivery, his album with Burt Bacharach more novelty than pop favorite. Costello's restlessness seemed the best thing about him. This CD, however, feels grounded and creative. A fan of von Otter's since his wife, Cait, took him to hear her in 1989 in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, Costello aesthetically courted von Otter. Last year, they sifted through some 30 songs, ultimately settling on the 18 that make up this loosely thematic CD. It's so unexpectedly good, you hope the outtakes show up as a bootleg.