They're such unlikely collaborators.
On the one hand, there's Elvis Costello, a man who made his name as a viciously verbose new wave star, and whose image was a central symbol in Brett Easton Ellis' novel of nihilistic youth, Less Than Zero.
On the other, there's Burt Bacharach, who came to fame as a '60s pop songwriter, and who was presented as an icon of bachelor-pad sophistication in the Mike Myers movie, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
At first glance, they seem worlds apart. Even seeing them side-by-side on the back cover of Painted from Memory (Mercury 314 538 002, arriving in stores today) — Costello in his pork pie hat and black leather jacket, Bacharach in his white shirt and blazer — seems strange, making it hard to imagine what the two could possibly have in common.
Such confusion evaporates within the album's first few minutes, however. No matter how unlikely a pair the two may appear, the music they make together is nothing short of astonishing.
It isn't just that "Painted from Memory" is a stunning display of vocal strength and songwriting skill; what really makes this collaboration shine is that we get the full flavor of both Costello and Bacharach in these 12 tunes.
Anyone familiar with the lush, jazzy chords Bacharach built into "Close to You" and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" will have no trouble hearing his harmonic touch in "Toledo" or "Such Unlikely Lovers." Likewise, any listener who ever reveled in the acerbic wordplay of Costello classics like "Every Day I Write the Book" and "Allison" will equally enjoy the lyrical grace given "The Long Division" and "Tears at the Birthday Party."
That said, it should also be noted that Painted from Memory is very much an Elvis Costello album. Not only is it credited to "Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach," but the basic tracks were all recorded with Costello's regular band — keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Greg Cohen and guitarist Dean Parks — augmented by Bacharach's piano and orchestrations. Naturally, the vocals are all Costello.
Still, this isn't just any Costello album. Despite the fact that he co-wrote all the material with Bacharach, Costello nonetheless approaches these songs more as a singer than a songwriter, mustering all the power and interpretive strength he can. On a strictly vocal level, this is some of the best vocal work he's ever done — but even then, what he does is unlikely to win over every listener.
Costello may be one of the finest singers in rock, but he doesn't have one of the finest voices. Edgy and constricted, his slightly nasal tone lacks the lustrous warmth of Karen Carpenter's voice or the lithe grace of Dionne Warwick's, and that keeps these songs from having the easy pop appeal of Bacharach's '60s hits.
Then again, the songs on Painted from Memory are darker and more adult than those oldies. Whether detailing the uneasy truce of the not-quite-loving couple in "Toledo," or surveying the wreckage of shattered marriage in "This House Is Empty Now," Costello's protagonists are carrying a heavy emotional burden — and Costello puts that across in his performances, making their hope and anguish eminently audible.
Yet no matter how charged his singing becomes, Costello always manages to do justice to the smooth, swinging cadences of Bacharach's melodies. He's all cool, breezy confidence in the waltz-time chorus to "I Still Have That Other Girl," and he brings a jazzy ease to the complicated melody of "Such Unlikely Lovers."
In short, it's a deeply musical performance, sophisticated on levels few pop albums attain these days. That may not make it particularly easy listening, but then, it's not intended to be. This is serious music for serious listeners, and is, at its best, seriously rewarding.