Baby, it's them

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach are not such unlikely partners

But in the end, it's not a great record--at least not when held against the myriad of great records in Costello's discography, including such albums as his 1977 debut My Aim is True and its follow-up This Year's Model (his first with the Attractions). Indeed, both of those albums have become to his admirers like museum pieces, records best listened to behind glass; few performers could ever live up to those albums, or live them down. And Brutal Youth certainly looks out of place next to 1979's Armed Forces, 1982's Imperial Bedroom, 1983's Punch the Clock, and 1986's Blood and Chocolate.

The record does not drip with venom, does not howl in anguish, does not scream in anger, does not sigh in delight. It feels like product, as though each song should come with its own bar code. Brutal Youth does not sound like a record made by a man who is any longer passionate about making a rock-and-roll record. To quote from "Lip Service," written by him 20 years ago, everybody is going through the motions.

As a result of poor album sales--which Warner Bros. Records blamed on his decision to digress instead of rock, and Costello blamed on Warner Bros.' failure even to advertise his more recent records--he left the label in disgust. He is now on his third label in 20 years, having signed to Mercury Records at the beginning of 1998.

And so, perhaps, it is a relief to hear from the man's own mouth that, for now, he is through with rock and roll; finished with trying to impress with his wicked, witty, intricate wordplay; fed up with strapping a guitar around his neck one more time and, yes, going through the motions. Instead, he dreams of one day writing and performing a disc that features no words at all. Galling!

Such a desire grew out of writing over the past two years with the 70-year-old Burt Bacharach, whom he ran into 10 years ago while Costello was in the studio recording Spike. Their first meeting in 1988 was a brief, thrilling one for Elvis. Imagine a child running into Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds' tunnels after a game. They exchanged a few words, Costello apologized to Bacharach for "stealing" his arrangements, and that was it. Eight years later, they would wind up collaborating on a song for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart, without ever standing in the same room together.

Eventually, they would record a full-length disc together featuring their music and Elvis' sparse words. The result, Painted From Memory, will be released on September 29--though it sounds like a record that's been in the racks for decades.

Perhaps their collaboration was inevitable, almost fated. Costello, after all, had long been a fan of the music Bacharach had written with lyricist (and ex-journalist) Hal David during the 1950s and '60s. Twenty years ago, before Costello even had a deal with Columbia Records, he and the Attractions recorded Bacharach and David's "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" for the Live Stiffs collection. In 1984, he and Nick Lowe performed "Baby It's You," intending it as a single release until Columbia deemed the song "too good" for release (Elvis' words); "Baby It's You" would later appear on the import odds-and-ends collection Out of Our Idiot and, subsequently, on Rykodisc's reissue of Goodbye Cruel World. In 1990, Costello also recorded the Bacharach-David classic "Please Stay"--though it too wouldn't be released until 1995's all-covers disc Kojak Variety.

Now, instead of paying homage to Bacharach, Costello is his partner: They wrote each song on Painted From Memory together, performed them in the same room with an eight-piece ensemble, then invited a 24-piece pop orchestra to lay down the plush carpet that blankets each song. For the second time in his life, Costello has been given the opportunity to write and record with a childhood idol.

A decade ago, he collaborated on a dozen tunes with Paul McCartney, whose old band turned a young Declan MacManus on to the power of rock and roll (and whose former band once covered "Baby It's You"). Now, Costello shares royalties with Burt Bacharach, whose music takes up so much space in the pop dictionary. Such songs as "Walk On By," "I Say a Little Prayer," "(They Long to Be) Close to You," "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Wishin' and Hopin'," and "Any Day Now" are filled with melodies and lyrics you've memorized without even trying, like old phone numbers you haven't dialed in years.

To recite the list of songs written by Bacharach and David during their days and nights together in New York's legendary Brill Building and to catalogue the roster of artists who've covered them is to recount the history of modern pop music. Few other composers can claim to have had their work performed by Perry Como, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, the Drifters, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Benny Goodman, Isaac Hayes, Cilla Black, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Stranglers, the Bay City Rollers, and Bomb the Bass. Hell, to have withstood Ethyl Meatplow's distorted, druggy take of "(They Long to Be) Close to You" alone is to prove one's invincibility.

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