What do you get when Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach go into the studio together?
The best album Dionne Warwick never made.
On their newly released collaboration Painted From Memory, Costello and Bacharach hark back to the emotionally and musically extraordinary hits Bacharach wrote with lyricist Hal David for Warwick in the '60s, songs such as "Walk On By," "I Say A Little Prayer For You" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart."
For Bacharach, 70, the collaboration marks a return to the style of his most memorable triumphs. For Costello, 44, it's a plunge into romantic waters. For both pop luminaries, it's a commercially risky but artistically gratifying experiment.
"I know there isn't another album out there like this," Bacharach says. "I have a feeling there's an untapped audience or something like it, but it's not easy for me and Elvis to get played on Top 40 radio. We're going to have to go another route. We'll do a few concerts together, starting with Radio City Music Hall in New York next week, and then we'll see. It's one of those albums that you put out and then you hope."
"I just want to take these songs out and play them anywhere I can get them heard," Costello says in a separate conversation. "We would have loved to have come to Boston, but we couldn't work out the dates. But I'll be up there doing some of them on Saturday (tomorrow) at the MixFest with (pianist) Steve Nieve. I'm very proud of the new songs I've written with Burt. If everything goes well, we'll do a full-blown tour next year and Boston will be at the top of the list."
The origin of the Costello-Bacharach partnership goes back to the 1996 movie Grace of My Heart. Costello had written one song for the film about a Carole King-like songwriter when it was suggested he do another with Bacharach. They wrote "God Give Me Strength" (which closes Painted From Memory) by phone and fax and ended up with a Grammy nomination for their efforts.
"We had to do this song very fast for this picture," Bacharach says. "I didn't have time to be dubious about the idea of working with Elvis. His work from the punk era didn't appeal to me, but from his later work, things like what he did with the Brodsky String Quartet and the Jazz Passengers, I knew he was a gifted songman. I liked the way our song turned out and then when we actually got together in New York to record it, I found him very easy to work with, very open and giving. So I could imagine what we could do writing in the same room together."
When they resumed their joint songwriting, Costello and Bacharach found their careers going through changes. Given his inclination to stray from rock, Costello left Warner Brothers to sign an unusual deal with Polygram allowing him to release music on the company's classical and jazz as well as pop labels. A jazz version of the songs on Painted by Memory, featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, is already set for release early next year.
Meanwhile Bacharach, who had last found major success in the mid-'80s with "That's What Friends Are For," was enjoying an unexpected resurgence that shows no signs of abating: next month Rhino will release the three-CD The Burt Bacharach Collection, while N2K will release CD and home-video versions of One Amazing Night, the Bacharach TV tribute that featured Costello, Warwick, Barenaked Ladies, Chrissie Hynde and others.
"A number of things happened at the same time," Bacharach says, "and none of it was planned. There was (an appearance in) Austin Powers, (tribute) albums by McCoy Tyner and John Zorn, My Best Friend's Wedding (which made extensive use of Bacharach's music). It was stone cold luck. The best publicist in the world couldn't manufacture all this. You could say it happened because the songs I wrote 30 years ago were a little in front of their time, but they were hits back then, weren't they? So I can't explain it. I just know I'm fortunate."
But will Painted From Memory continue that good fortune? The music, written by Bacharach and Costello together, evokes an older era even as it challenges with tricky melodies and shifting time signatures. In its lyrics, Costello relentlessly plumbs a faithless lover's despair and regret.
"I made a proposal to Burt that we pick up on the feeling of 'God Give Me Strength' and write a whole album looking at lost love from every angle," Costello says.
Was he writing from personal experience?
Costello bristles at the suggestion. "Unlike a lot of current rock writers, I don't believe there is superior authenticity in setting your diary to music. There's this bogus notion that it's somehow more real if you cut yourself and bleed on the page. I think that's lazy. There is as much self-revelation in 'What Is This Thing Called Love' by Cole Porter as there is in any song by Kurt Cobain. One is not superior to the other.
"My job is to create stories with music and words and invite people to identify themselves with those songs, not with me personally. These new songs are loaded with emotional details, but they're not inviting contemplation of my personal circumstances. They're inviting contemplation of the listener's circumstances and how the songs touch them."
And if the sensitive subject matter recalls the lyrics Hal David wrote for Dionne Warwick to sing long ago, well, maybe that was Costello's way of bringing out the best of Bacharach.
"It's Burt's real romantic songs that always touched me the most," Costello says. " 'What's New Pussycat?' and 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head' have real charm and wit, but the ones that got under my skin were ones like 'Are You There With Another Girl' and 'Anyone Who Had a Heart.' They have an anguish, a churning, not just in the words but in the way the music twists and turns. We tried to use these elements that are more typical of Burt's canon than mine, but I really feel at home with them."
He laughs. "I've plundered them for inspiration on more than a few occasions."
And what did Bacharach bring out of Costello? Maybe the most direct lyrics and singing of Costello's career.
"I've always felt very comfortable working with female singers," Bacharach says, "but I'm comfortable with male singers, too. Elvis has a very powerful voice. It's not urban. He's not Luther Vandross. But he's not supposed to be. He's not like any singer I've worked with before. But when we were in the room writing together, working together, we knew this was going to work."