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Initially, Costello wrestled with just how to write with Bacharach. He didn't want simply to imitate his style, but he also didn't want to come in with a bunch of "rock and roll" songs, thus creating an album that was more like a "Frankenstein's monster." So instead, he decided to "borrow gestures that I think of as his, but still obviously employ them in a way that is entirely mine." The result is an Elvis Costello record even a grandmother could love--pristine pop music made for the concert hall, Costello as the Dionne Warwick of the 1990s.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the record is Costello's Spartan lyrics. Where once he filled every second of every song with a twist (of a knife, most often--"I wish you luck with a capital F") and crammed his music full of puns ("You lack lust, you're so lackluster"), now he's content to write simple, straightforward lyrics. Bacharach's songs, so full of knotty time signatures and even staccato melodies, demand such streamlining. And so the man who once wrote "She said that she was working for the ABC News / It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use" now pens lines such as, "I can't believe this is happening / We're such unlikely lovers." It doesn't get any simpler than that.
"The challenge became saying things simply enough to where they were immediately understandable, but to stay away from cliches," Costello says. "I hope we've stayed away from cliches, and maybe we've coined a few new phrases. That was a very definite conscious decision, and of course that caused me all kinds of problems. Burt writes very sparsely, so the words have got to be very spaced out, and yet they still have to be very coherent. And with me, I would have a tumble of words coming out in some songs without as much consideration of melodic shape...There's a difference in the approach of a lyric-driven songwriter and a melodic-driven songwriter. I'm somewhere between the two now.
"I'm less driven by lyrics than before. I think the music has the ability to suggest things to you if it is handled properly, and words just reinforce that feeling, and that was what I went for in some cases. I wasn't so concerned to dazzle people with my wit. Who cares? Wouldn't it be better to touch you with something, that you're feeling it before it's explained to you?"
In May, Costello wrote an essay for The Guardian in England celebrating Frank Sinatra, who had just died, and pronouncing Only The Lonely as his favorite album. His Sinatra fetish is well-documented; his version of "My Funny Valentine" that appeared on 1980's Taking Liberties owed everything--the arrangement and the phrasing--to Sinatra's rendition. Like Sinatra, Costello has always had a fondness for the pop standards of the 1940s and '50s, having recorded throughout his career such songs as Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," Jerome Kern's "They Didn't Believe Me," George Gershwin's "But Not For Me," and myriad other Tin Pan Alley standards.
More to the point, in his own song "The Deportees Club" off Goodbye Cruel World, Costello himself longs for "the secret life of Frank Sinatra." It is suggested to him that, in a perfect world, he would like to be both Cole Porter and Sinatra.
"Absolutely, if only you could be!" he says. "What a sex life you would have had! But no, I don't ever want to be somebody else. But to be perfectly honest, I certainly don't think music begins and ends with rock and roll. It never did."
A few nights ago, Costello was watching television when some performer--he does not recall who, perhaps intentionally--explained to an interviewer that he is a "rock star." He recalls wondering at that moment, "Is that a career? Can you train for that?" He then explains he is not much a fan of rock music anymore, at least of that "monolithic beat" that has come to define too much of the genre. Costello's decision to work with Bacharach is actually an admirable move. It signifies that as he approaches middle age, Mr. MacManus will no longer find it necessary to go on the road with an electric guitar, singing about how radio's a sad salvation and accidents will happen and how he's got to pump it up until you can't feel it.
To that end, he has disbanded the Attractions for good, hanging on only to pianist Steve Nieve, who appears on Painted From Memory. The two of them will tour behind the disc (Bacharach and Costello will only appear in a few cities), performing the new songs in addition to a few Costello oldies rearranged for piano and vocals. Last year, the duo released a five-disc boxed set featuring performances recorded around the country, and among the highlights is their austere rendition of "Watching the Detectives." It swings, but it does not rock.
"There has been the impulse for a number of years now to build a temple to rock and roll, and when that happens, the more solid and static it gets," Costello says. "It just crumbles away, and it stops moving...You watch the MTV Music Video Awards, and you can't find anything of consequence. If that's the best that the business can provide, then we're really in trouble."