Baby, it's them

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Thankfully, the box excises much of his late-1970s and 1980s detritus, songs written after he and Hal David had an acrimonious split that resulted in a lawsuit long since forgotten. Indeed, Bacharach might well have disappeared during the late 1970s and '80s. Save for a few soundtrack contributions, including "Arthur's Theme," he seemed to stumble along without David. Bacharach's output, once so complex, turned into Muzak; on songs such as "On My Own" and "That's What Friends Are For," the grand orchestras gave way to tinny keyboards, and the depth felt suddenly very shallow, even when his songs were performed by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Luther Vandross. The later compositions contained so much cheese, you could buy them at a deli.

Which is why his collaboration with Costello is so significant. It offers proof that Bacharach is himself no museum exhibit. Even at 70, he is willing to take on a new partner, to trade a little knowledge with the man who once insisted his first album could best be described as being about "politics/philosophy and revenge."

It's too simple to say Costello is Bacharach's new Hal David, just as it was too easy to describe Elvis as this year's John Lennon when he collaborated with Paul McCartney. After all, Costello isn't only a lyricist; he's an obsessive melody writer as well, apt to call Bacharach in the middle of the night with a new bridge or chorus, in addition to a handful of lyrics.

"He's a good risk taker, a serious risk taker," Bacharach says of Costello. "He takes his chances, like with the Brodsky Quartet. He's got a group of hardcore people who are his fans, and they're going to say, 'Damn it, Burt Bacharach? The king of the middle of the road writing with Elvis? But it's an interesting thing...He's a brilliant lyricist--I won't even suggest a word to him, because he's one of the great, great writers--and musically, he brings to certain songs more than others a distinctly Elvis core."

Which is perhaps why Painted From Memory is so often a remarkable record, though now and then it lies in the middle of the road and waits for a truck to run over it. Using "God Give Me Strength" as their departure point, the two men decided to write an entire album of what Costello calls "lost-love songs." But the record's a rather joyous affair as Costello's deep, almost soulful vocals float above Bacharach's sparse, lavish melodies and arrangements. Songs such as "In The Darkest Place," "Toledo," "I Still Have That Other Girl," "The Long Division" (a very Costello title), and "What's Her Name Today?" are very much what you imagine Costello-Bacharach songs to sound like--beautiful, complex, sophisticated, angry, sentimental. It's a mouthful of sugar and salt, what happens when two men out of time connect to make music that pays homage to then while trying to be relevant for now.

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky