Seated at a piano in a dark room in Dublin, Ireland, Elvis Costello bowed his head over his knees in thought, his fingers groping for the white and black keys as he searched for just the right sound.
Thousands of miles from his songwriting partner in the U.S., the legendary pop-songsmith Burt Bacharach, Costello said he worked hard to set the right atmosphere as he searched for the melodies that would lend themselves to the unlikely songwriting team's first full-length collaboration, Painted From Memory.
Somewhere in that gloomy Dublin room, Costello said he found them.
"I really was just looking for changes that interested me, remembering them or running a tape recorder and just improvising until something interesting developed," Costello said of his role on the LP, which hit stores Tuesday.
The two were encouraged to record a full-length album together after their pairing on the sweeping ballad "God Give Me Strength," written for the Allison Anders film Grace of My Heart, earned a Grammy nomination. Pop-songsmith Costello and '60s-pop icon Bacharach wrote separately some of the time, then they swapped ideas in sessions that led to the solidifying of songs such as "Toledo," a somber sketch of a man caught in an affair.
"[Bacharach] had come up with this bridge in the song 'Toledo,' and he said, 'I've got this idea that, before we go to the trumpet solo again, we should have the background voices come in and make a comment,' sort-of admonish this guy who was trying to bring himself to confess his infidelity," Costello said.
"I said, 'Hang on a second, there's something coming to me,' and I sang, 'Do you hear her voice / how could you do that,' and on the notes he'd given me. And I could see he was exactly as surprised as I had been when he had written that passage of music," he continued.
The duo developed a budding mutual-admiration society when they did come together to work on the 12 brooding songs that make up Painted From Memory, a series of collaborations Costello described as a process that was sometimes breathtaking. Costello contributed words and music, while Bacharach focused on developing the melodies.
"We found ourselves going toward the music you hear. A lot of minor-key tonality, which obviously gives it an ominous sound sometimes," Costello said. "I witnessed him composing a passage of music one day while we were stuck in the middle of the song 'I Still Have That Other Girl' ... and I actually watched him write it and it took my breath away because he got lost in it, suddenly he wasn't even there, it was just happening."
As someone who worked with Costello on five previous recordings, Kevin Killen, who mixed and recorded the LP, was struck by the energy that came from the interaction between Bacharach and his new-wave-born pop counterpart, Costello.
"It was an interesting dynamic," Killen said. "They were very respectful of each other and worked really well together. No one person dominated. Burt has an uncanny sense of harmonic content and melodic structure."
Recorded at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles, Painted From Memory features Bacharach directing a 24-piece orchestra, which will accompany the two songwriters on their upcoming mini-tour. The tour begins Oct. 13 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
The two songwriters hail from different backgrounds. Bacharach found pop success in his collaborations with Hal David on songs sung by R&B diva Dionne Warwick, such as "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" and "Walk On By." He has won three Academy Awards — for the songs "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" and "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" and for best score (the soundtrack to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid).
Costello, meanwhile, is known primarily for his melody-driven guitar-pop, which has filled such albums as his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, and launched such pop hits such as "Veronica" and "Everyday I Write the Book."
While both Costello and Bacharach have collaborated with other songwriters before — Costello with former Beatle Paul McCartney and Bacharach with David — this teaming takes on added significance, given that Bacharach's most famous work is known for having an almost syrupy-pop quality and that Costello's early work — on albums such as 1978's This Year's Model — bristled with a raw, rock feel, a sound that paved the way for many artists in the '80s and '90s.
The new LP blends the two backgrounds seamlessly, in part because Costello wrote on Bacharach's instrument of choice — the piano — instead of guitar.
Acknowledging that there are no uptempo songs on the record, Costello pointed out that joining forces with Bacharach allowed him to pursue more subtle aspects of music, outside the reaches of edgy guitar-rock.
"Burt, he's much more adventurous harmonically. His use of rhythm is very gentle, but out of that subtlety are these explosions of power that no rock band could ever match," Costello said.
"No rock band could ever match the explosion of power in the middle of 'God Give Me Strength,' " Costello continued. "You'd need two heavy-metal bands to have an explosion like that."