Review of Painted From Memory
Salon, 1998-10-01
- Stephanie Zacharek
Elvis Costello's words and Burt Bacharach's 
music were meant to be together. 

BY STEPHANIE ZACHAREK | It makes sense that Elvis
Costello and Burt Bacharach wrote the songs for "Painted
From Memory" in bits and pieces over the past two years,
getting together whenever they could manage it, sometimes
in a New York hotel room outfitted with a rented piano. It
sounds as if those makeshift assignations were the best
possible way for them to work together, in the same way that
illicit lovers make the best of their time together with feverish
secrecy, building something that's gorgeous in its fragility and
immediacy even as they're fully aware that heartbreak is,
inevitably, just around the corner -- if not already hiding under
the bed. "Painted From Memory" is so soft, plush and yielding
a record that I wonder if a lot of people won't automatically
file it away under Easy Listening. But I don't know what's
easy about lines like "If anyone should look into your eyes/It's
not forgiveness that they're going to see." Jealousy, obsessive
longing, the desolation that stares back at you from the
bottom of the empty vodka glass -- all of those classic
themes are here, wrapped up in pastel cashmere melodies
whose complexity doesn't hit you until you've fallen hard for
their hooks. "Painted From Memory" is the perfect record
about heartbreak, because instead of succumbing to simple
mopery, it captures heartbreak's complex allure: There's
some glamour in it, too, amid the tears. 

Of course, the glamour of heartbreak is a pretty big selling
point these days, and there's no doubt that Mercury,
Costello's new label, is hoping "Painted From Memory" will
hit it big with the young hipsters who've recently fallen so
hard for '60s lounge pop. Bacharach, especially after his
"Austin Powers" cameo, is a hot property, and if it's
wonderful that his music -- some of it the very best pop of
the '60s -- is reaching a new, younger audience, it's also a
little painful to see him treated as an object of kitsch, the
musical equivalent of shag carpeting or those egg-shaped
pedestal chairs. 

It's even more painful, though, to see Costello being hung out
to dry, as if he could use a little boost from a big shot like
Bacharach. In his review of "Painted From Memory" in
Rolling Stone, Greg Kot says that Costello "has seen his chic
factor drop to less than zero in recent years, in part because
he keeps fluttering from genre to genre." For people who
care more about image than actual music -- and for people
who've turned their glorious punk youth into a relic along the
lines of Miss Havisham's wedding cake -- those words may
actually mean something. For anybody who has ears to listen,
though, it's blindingly apparent that Costello is only just now
reaching his peak as a singer. For phrasing and
expressiveness (as well as, increasingly, for tonal quality),
there's no singer in contemporary pop music who can touch

It seems like a small miracle that Costello and Bacharach,
two extraordinary songwriters, have finally gotten together,
but the even bigger treat is that we get to hear Costello's
interpretation of songs that bear a definite Bacharach stamp.
Costello wrote the words to all of the songs here, and if
they're less brainy and playful than his trademark lyrics,
they're also less dense. Their aerated quality gives Costello
more open spaces to play with as a vocalist. And the
melodies themselves, written by Costello and Bacharach
together, are captivating. It's not always easy to identify
particular songs as being "more Costello" or "more
Bacharach," especially since both have always shown a
fondness for gently surprising melodic structures that bend
and twist with the suppleness of vines (and since Costello has
always cited Bacharach as an influence anyway). But
"Painted From Memory" has that classic, undeniably
Bacharach sound: With the exception of the title track,
arranged by Johnny Mandel, all the orchestration is his. The
songs sound both modern and weirdly timeless, especially if
you grew up hearing (and loving) Bacharach's songs on the
radio. Deceptively simple piano motifs define the melodies
without spelling out every nuance; strings swell and retreat
like softly painted floating backdrops; horn lines pop out in
relief, but their edges are soft, chalk-smudged; for better or
worse (and sometimes, clearly, for worse), diaphanous
retro-girlie backup vocals drift in like ghosts finally freed
from their prison of busted-up, long-forgotten transistor

But if it's Bacharach who sets the record's tone, it's Costello
who keeps it from being just a nostalgia trip. "This House Is
Empty Now" could be a bookend for the Bacharach-Hal
David hit "A House Is Not a Home," but if the two share the
same theme (the idea of a house -- and a heart -- as an
empty shell), Costello undercuts some of the older song's
overwrought melodrama. "Do you recognize the face fixed in
that fine silver frame?/Were you really so unhappy then?
You never said," he sings, the clipped rhythm of those last
three words like a sucker punch, as if the possibility that his
partner could love him so little is only just now hitting him. 

The sentiment -- if not the actual wording -- of most of these
songs is too corrosive to be simple nostalgic retrolounge stuff.
In "Toledo," the album's most striking song, a man returns
from a secret tryst to find the message light blinking on his
answering machine. He knows it's his longtime lover, and he
knows she knows where he's been. "It's no use saying that I
love you/and how that girl really didn't mean a thing to me,"
he begins to say, a rationalization he seems to be working out
for himself even as we're hearing it. The lyrics stretch across
musical phrases like a curvy Japanese footbridge, the kind
that demands that small, careful steps be taken. But the
song's most exotic turn comes in the chorus. The subject is
changed quickly, in a seeming non sequitur, like an unfaithful
lover's nervous dodge: "But do people living in Toledo know
that their name hasn't traveled very well?/And does anybody
in Ohio dream of that Spanish citadel?" The lines are puzzling
at first, until you realize that they're not meant as a dig at
Ohioans, but as an almost subconscious musing on the way
people, willfully or otherwise, forget the origins of things.
Place names are borrowed, adopted -- they become so
familiar that we forget to consider what they stand for in and
of themselves. Isn't it all too easy to do the same thing with

Unfortunately, there are times on "Painted From Memory"
when subtlety is all but smothered. The arrangements, by and
large, are lovely, but occasionally there's a puzzling misstep.
Sometimes the female backing vocals just sound too campy,
and the LP's first single, "The Long Division," features an
overly slick electronic keyboard riff that sounds like
something from an old Lou Rawls record. 

But even though "Painted From Memory" is clearly going to
be marketed to the adult-contemporary audience, it's
important to make the distinction between
adult-contemporary and simply adult. To look at "Painted
From Memory" as evidence of Costello's "settling down" into
maturity (and respectability) is simply the flip side of the
handy insult parents sometimes fling at teenagers: "You're
young, you'll get over it." No less insulting is the assumption
that adult feelings are less genuine -- or intrinsically less
"interesting" -- than what we felt when we were young and
completely messed up. In the staggering ballad "My Thief,"
Costello sings from the point of view of a man whose lost
lover keeps breaking into his dreams. He begs her to stop,
and yet he knows he couldn't bear it if she did. There's an
obsessive intensity, and a tenderness, to the song that
Costello couldn't have nailed as well 20 or even 10 years ago.
And on "In the Darkest Place," his voice is lush and velvety,
like a tiger's flank. There's something both finely controlled
and untamable about it -- Costello isn't the pussycat he's been
made out to be. 

To many of us who were kids in the '60s, Bacharach's songs
-- polished and seductive on the surface, but with melodic
complexities we might not have comprehended at the time --
were like an entree into adulthood. Bacharach made being a
grown-up seem easy, appealing, the happening place to be.
But in retrospect, the sophistication of his melodies also
seems like an admission that life doesn't necessarily get any
easier to comprehend as you get older, a metaphor for the
curveballs that were bound to come our way just as we were
sure we had everything figured out. "Painted From Memory,"
a record made by a former angry young man and a man
whose '60s pop hits represented the ultimate in urbane
coolness, is a gorgeous record, but not necessarily a soothing
one. There's an undercurrent of unrest rushing beneath the
surface, a defiant rejection of the numbness so many people
mistake for maturity. And if the essence of punk is a refusal
to let life slide by unexamined, a vow to feel rage or
frustration or boredom or heartbreak full-tilt, then "Painted
From Memory" is a subversively punk record. Anyone who
had a heart would know. 
SALON | Oct. 1, 1998 

Stephanie Zacharek is a regular contributor to Salon