Review of Painted From Memory
Feed, 1998-09-30
- Ben Greenman

S E P T E M B E R  3 0,   1 9 9 8

  IN A WEEK dominated by rock women -- new albums from PJ Harvey, Sheryl Crow, Joni Mitchell, and Chaka Khan flooded stores Tuesday -- the odd men out were Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, who showed up with their first album-length collaboration, Painted From Memory (Mercury). Bacharach, the demigod of smooth adult pop, is enjoying a career upswing that rivals his late-sixties glory days. (Mike Myers even marked Austin Powers's time-warp by having the addled superspy reclaim a Bacharach LP after decades of deep-freeze.) Painted from Memory extends an earlier project in which Costello and Bacharach co-wrote a song for the Alison Anders film Grace of My Heart. That song, "God Give Me Strength," grew out of a telephone collaboration into a marvelous piece of melodramatic pop. Cheered by its success, Burt and Elvis decided to make an album. They should have left it at the one-off.

For the most part, Painted from Memory is easy to forget. Full of nebulous mood-pop, it's excessively long and overdetermined, not up to Bacharach's standards or even those of Bacharach standard-bearers like Prefab Sprout and Ivy. Sure, there are standouts: "The Sweetest Punch" has a chiming intensity; "I Still Have That Other Girl" is wonderfully simple and direct; and "God Give Me Strength" remains tidal. But most of the songs crumble under strained melodies ("Be My Thief") or fussy lyrics ("The Long Division").

Music-comp wonks like to herald Bachrach's complexity. ("Can you hear how he's shunting between 5/4, 4/4, and 7/8 time in 'Anyone Who Had a Heart'?") But Berklee School types forget that Bacharach's best songs soar not because of musical intricacy, but because of their lyrical directness. With Hal David especially, Bacharach wrote away from personal experience and toward universal experience, and that's why his songs have endured as standards.

Costello, on the other hand, is hardly ecumenical. Over the course of his career, he has written a great many songs, and many great songs, but few that could be classified as standards. Only Elvis's sparest ballads ("Indoor Fireworks") and the best songs from his worst albums ("Shipbuilding") can claim universal appeal, mainly because they found Costello cleaving to conventions as he struggled to rediscover his own voice. Once he found that voice again, he returned to self-consciously clever, unequivocally personal tales, more Joycean than Shakesperean.

This isn't the first time that complex personal songwriting has hurt Burt. His devaluation in the mid-70s resulted not from disco or hard rock, but from the rise of singer-songwriters. In an age of confessionals, who needs professionals? Those Brill Building alums who survived, like Carole King and Paul Simon, did so by yoking their melodic talents to autobiographical lyrics. Bacharach didn't change a whit. In fact, when he did resurface in the '80s, it was with more highly melodic, highly generic compositions ("Arthur's Theme" and "That's What Friends Are For"). On Painting From Memory, Costello's brushstrokes obscure Bacharach's convoluted sonic landscapes. Or, to put it another way, elaborate word-play about emotional double-crosses just aren't Burt's bag, baby.

Ben Greenman writes frequently for Time Out New York, and is an editor at Yahoo! Internet Life.