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In ABBA's old studio, Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter reinterpret pop music history

Elvis Costello knows what critics and fans will call For the Stars, the album he recorded with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter: a collection of covers of songs written by Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, ABBA, Ron Sexsmith and, yes, Elvis Costello. He doesn't particularly mind that these new renditions will be classified as cover versions, has no problem absolving people who allude to For the Stars in that manner. He understands.

That doesn't mean he agrees. He insists For the Stars is something more than that. And he's right.

"Particular fans of individual songs on this record, like the Brian Wilson songs or the Tom Waits songs, would obviously have an opinion about whether or not they feel this version is of a value beyond the original version," Costello says, on the phone from his home in Liverpool. "But I think that's maybe to miss the point of why a song should be sung at all. In the early days of popular music, and certainly in the earliest sheet music charts, the fame of the song rested on how many times it was recorded and how many different interpretations it had. Nowadays, we tend to kind of put a lot of stock in this idea that the one definitive version of a song is the only one you should consider.

Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter laugh at Costello's latest hat during a break from the recording of For the Stars.
Mats Backer/DG
Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter laugh at Costello's latest hat during a break from the recording of For the Stars.

"I sort of feel that people can be excused for referring to this album as having cover versions, because that's the way we speak about doing songs again," he continues. "But I think when you actually hear them, certainly we've looked into the songs in a different way. There's not too many of them that owe a lot to the original renditions. They are really celebrations of what good compositions they are, particularly the Brian Wilson songs. They're just so beautifully written. It's worth considering that a lot of people in the world -- as great as Pet Sounds is -- they have never heard it and will never hear it, because it just doesn't speak to them."

As Costello rightly points out, von Otter's voice does speak to some of those people. Many more than you might imagine, in fact. Celebrated in classical music circles and virtually unknown outside of them, von Otter has thrilled audiences at New York's Metropolitan Opera, La Scala Milan, the Deutsche Opera Berlin and nearly every other respected opera house for almost two decades. The title of the new album is quite literal: Von Otter is a star in her own right, with her own successful yet markedly different recording career.

Put it this way: While you may not recognize Anne Sofie von Otter's name, there are probably just as many fans of music -- all music, not just rock 'n' roll -- who don't know or care who Elvis Costello is. And until a few years ago, you might've counted von Otter among that number. She is a classically trained vocalist who studied at London's Guildhall School of Music. Hers is a world full of attractions like Mendelssohn and Mozart and Verdi, not attractions named Pete and Bruce Thomas or Steve Nieve.

Those worlds began to collide more than a decade ago at a 1989 performance of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust that featured von Otter, one which Costello attended with his wife, Cait O'Riordan, the first of their many visits to see and hear von Otter. Costello still is, first and foremost, a fan of von Otter, including her 1996 album Wings in the Night on the list of his 500 favorite albums he contributed to Vanity Fair in the magazine's November 2000 issue. (Okay, 500 albums is, well, a lot, but Costello didn't even believe one of his own albums was good enough for inclusion. So there.) For years, however, Costello was content to remain in the audience with O'Riordan, his appreciation for von Otter's voice kept mostly to himself.

He couldn't keep it to himself forever. Costello and von Otter's collaboration began, as some relationships do, with an anonymous bouquet of flowers. And then another one. And then another. Before long, von Otter's curiosity got the better of her, and she instructed her manager to locate the person sending flowers to her dressing room, her secret admirer. And when the man behind the gifts finally made his way to her, it was a familiar name and face: Elvis Costello. Von Otter didn't know much more about him other than that. She didn't know that, in Costello, she'd found the perfect person to guide her from classical to popular music and back again. A music student, just like she was, except that he was self-educated.

Although he began his career as an unlikely punk, for the past decade Costello has dabbled in more genres than most record stores. And as he gets older, Costello becomes more like the men he grew up with: Frank Sinatra (his records, anyway) and Ross McManus, his musician father, who introduced him to classical music, as well as his own unique style of crooning, honed while fronting traveling big bands. He's become a skilled interpreter, with a gentle ease at turning other people's songs into his own. As For the Stars proves, he's also become quite the bandleader, conducting -- "And when I say conducting, I was waving my arms around, hoping that they did something," he says, laughing -- an ensemble that includes longtime henchman, keyboard player Nieve, as well as Sweden's Fleshquartet and, on two songs, ABBA's Benny Andersson.

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