Baby, it's them

Page 2 of 7

Elvis Costello and the Attractions had turned into the Rolling Stones.
But even now, during an hourlong phone conversation, Costello insists that "I didn't think Brutal Youth was like anything that had been done before. I was aware that the basic musical premise was those four guys playing in a studio together, using very little, or no additional orchestration and just a few instruments we may not have had access to initially. There was a difference in age and experience that went between that record and Blood and Chocolate and the first record we made together. It was like checking out against the blueprint, going back and saying, 'Let's have a look at the blueprint, let's see if we can get another sort of building out of it.' And we did, and it's a good record."

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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky