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
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
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,
word-play about emotional double-crosses just aren't Burt's bag, baby.
writes frequently for Time Out New York, and is an
editor at Yahoo! Internet Life.