Elvis Costello wants you to listen carefully to the beginning of his new album, a collaboration with songwriter Burt Bacharach called Painted From Memory.
It starts with a song called "In the Darkest Place," a song about the despair that can wash over a man abandoned and denied by his lover. But it isn't the melody or lyric Costello wants us to hear — at least, not just yet.
Where he wants our focus is on the introduction. "Listen to how appealing, how intriguing the opening notes of the record are," he says. As scored by his collaborator, those first six bars are classic Bacharach, an artful mixture of jazzy sophistication and pop economy.
There's an ominous pulse as the bass and Bacharach's piano toll a slow pedal-point, the notes hanging in the air like the sound of church bells at a funeral. Above them, an alto flute sketches a sad, breathy melody. Eventually, an acoustic guitar joins in, fleshing out the chords Bacharach has been arpeggiating with his right hand, and it's time for the singer.
"Then my voice enters, and suddenly, it's immediately a different picture than if it were any of Burt's most famous advocates," says Costello. And judging from his barely repressed chortle, Costello couldn't be happier at the extent of that difference.
Not that anyone should be surprised. Costello and Bacharach hail from opposite ends of the pop spectrum. Costello was born in London, the son of a moderately popular big-band crooner named Ross McManus, and came up musically in the world of pub rock and punk. Bacharach was born in Kansas City, the son of syndicated celebrity columnist Bert Bacharach, and grew up on bebop and Broadway.
One was known as the angry young man of '70s new wave, the other as the golden boy of '60s pop. It would be hard to imagine a less-likely pop pair.
Yet the two work together well enough that what began as a one-off project in 1996, to compose a song for the film Grace of My Heart, eventually blossomed into a full-blown album. There's even a small tour planned that will find them — along with a 30-piece orchestra — playing dates in five cities. (They play D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington Thursday night.)
The collaboration wasn't always an easy one. Because Costello was in Ireland and Bacharach in Los Angeles, their first song, "God Give Me Grace," was written over the phone. But things between the two clicked, and Costello suggested that someday they attempt writing together while in the same room. It took almost a year before that day came, but the chemistry between them was unmistakable.
Costello says part of the reason writing together worked so well was that the two did not fit together in expected ways. "People would be immensely surprised if we were to reveal the blueprints of this record, [showing] exactly where the joins are in each song."
Although there are two songs on the album, "This House Is Empty Now" and "The Long Division," for which Costello's input amounted to little more than a few suggestions, most of the others were truly written together.
"It's a musical collaboration through and through, sometimes bar by bar, sometimes note by note," he says. "Other times, there's a dialog, section by section. Like something like 'I Still Have That Other Girl' — every other section of the song is written by the other writer, and in some cases, we've written the transition between two sections together."
Costello also dismisses the notion that he mainly wrote words, while Bacharach handled the music. Listeners, he says, would be "amazed" to find that some of the melodies they might assume were Bacharach's were actually penned by Costello. The reason they sound so Bacharachian, he says, is because "they're phrased in Burt's way, with instrumentation which we are used to hearing in Burt's orchestrations, and not in mine."
There were adjustments, however. In addition to composing on piano instead of guitar, Costello also found himself working more with notes-on-paper than he usually does. "Obviously, I'm fallible," he says. "I can write music down. I'm not great at reading it back, and sometimes there would be nuances I would miss."
When they were working on "In the Darkest Place," Costello came up with what he felt was a clever phrase. Punning on the phrase, "carrying a torch," he had his protagonist sing, "That is the torch I carry."
But Bacharach had problems with the line. "Burt said, 'Yeah, that's great. Except the line doesn't go, [sings] E F G G, E E D. It goes E F G G, E D.' And he would not yield those extra few notes for me to say, 'carry.' "
So Costello wrote instead, "That is the torch I bear," and was glad that Bacharach pushed him to stick to the original six-note melody. Apart from liking the emotional implications of "bear" better — "It's more naked, pardon the pun," he says — he feels that the final phrase works better musically.
"The space that was left in the bar allowed the next thought to enter unchallenged," he points out. "Little subtleties like that, I must say, I would have rushed through."
Painted From Memory may be the music year's most-anticipated collaboration, but it's also the most hotly debated. Some listeners and critics adore the album's emotional daring and musical sophistication; others are disturbed by its raw edges and aura of audible suffering. Costello in particular has come under criticism for the album, with some reviewers complaining that, in this project, his vocal reach exceeds his grasp.
Costello shrugs off such barbs. "I'm used to that," he says. "There's always something I'm doing wrong, in somebody's opinion.
"Really, the only answer to that is: Well, you're listening to the wrong record. You're not listening to the record that Burt and I wrote, because we consciously wrote these songs to have this content.
"They're not easy by any stretch of the imagination," he adds. "Anybody, I would think, would have a pause for thought before taking these on. But I just love singing them."