Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach's October 13 show at Radio City Music Hall began so much like a dream that I still can't shake the feeling that it was. The lights went down, and out of the darkness emerged Costello's voice singing one of the most heart-piercingly direct lyrics in pop music, "It's not the way you smiled that touched my heart / It's not the way you kiss that tears me apart." The curtain went up and there, backed by an orchestra, was Bacharach — sharp as could be in tuxedo and open-necked shirt. For the next two hours, over the course of three mini-sets and a solo set from each, the two of them made their way through one of the most magical evenings of pop music I've ever heard.
The sight of Costello and Bacharach performing together takes some getting used to. And not because of the supposed incongruity of the pairing. No, what accounted for the slightly unreal feeling of the evening was that this collaboration — so essentially right — is the sort that almost never happens in pop music, because of the barriers of age or genre, or the fear of confounding an audience.
Costello has spent the past few years refining his voice and sensibility while keeping touch with their defining qualities. With Kojak Variety, on his recording of Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars," and most of all on last year's All This Useless Beauty, he earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath with Van Morrison and Al Green. That some critics who've written about his music with Bacharach have picked at his technical limits strikes me as a throwback to the ridiculous argument that rock singers can't really sing.
The arrangements on Costello & Bacharach's new Painted from Memory (Mercury) are classic Bacharach, replete with the subdued lushness of his trademark muted trumpets and discreetly beautiful strings, and his complex yet compact piano phrases. Rooted more in the Brill Building than in the American-songbook composers to which they are often compared, Bacharach's arrangements, with their tricky shifts in tempo, their unexpectedly clipped or extended phrases, provide exactly the kind of test that a vocalist seeking to stretch himself would seek. Costello understands the great Bacharach/David songs — to borrow a phrase Robert Christgau used about another artist — as "living music, not living tradition." He takes great (and justifiable) pride in his skills as a pop craftsman, and having to write lyrics to suit Burt Bacharach's music provides him with another test.
And also, I think, a new freedom. Costello's famous quote about being interested only in "fear, guilt and revenge" was as irresistible as it was impossible to live up to. That's not to discount the venom of a number like "Lipstick Vogue" but merely to suggest that bitterness has, finally, to exist beside the doubt and regret and contingencies of adult life. On "Toledo," the blinking light on an answering machine stands in for the singer's guilty conscience after an infidelity. In "This House Is Empty Now" a just-divorced man wanders through his home, which is deserted but for the ghosts of memory. That sensibility is a nice fit for Bacharach, whose best songs have always exuded the private luxuriance of both heartaches and joys held as closely guarded secrets.
At Radio City Costello and Bacharach defined — and redefined — the sensibilities each brought to their collaboration. Bacharach, graceful and modest, led the orchestra in an extended medley of his best-known songs (occasionally providing husky — and rather sweet — vocals himself) that registered as one of those rare instances of hearing familiar music and noting its invention anew. With Costello he performed all of Painted from Memory with a vitality that belied the album's title. It's easy to imagine "Toledo," "I Still Have That Other Girl," and the stunning "God Give Me Strength" taking their place alongside Bacharach standards like "My Little Red Book" and "Anyone Who Had a Heart."
On his own, backed by pianist Steve Nieve, Costello offered new, improved orchestrated interpretations of some of his old songs. The most indelible moment came toward the end of "Accidents Will Happen," when he inserted the first few lines of "24 Hours from Tulsa" with a quietness that sucked you right in, made you dread the confession the lines promised, made the line he followed the interpolation with — "I know what I've done" — a nearly unbearable admission of guilt.
But for me, the meaning of the evening was summed up in "Alison." What keeps that song from being an old chestnut dragged out to please the crowd is that every time Costello performs it, he approaches it as a statement of ethics, a lie-detector test. Dozens of times over the last two decades, on transcendent nights and mediocre ones, I've seen him proclaim, "My aim is true," and I've never felt he wasn't doing what he could to live up to that statement. When he can no longer sing those words and mean them, it will be a signal that something false has crept into the restless invention that informs his music. With Bacharach on Painted from Memory, and at Radio City Music Hall, he gave no indication that that day is anywhere in the cards.