If fair had been fair at the Chicago Theatre Friday, Elvis Costello would have followed two overly long hits medleys by his new songwriting partner, Burt Bacharach, by pumping up his own blasts from the past.
But if Burt has happily emerged from the celebrity shadows as the same old Burt, applying his trademark muscular string arrangements and sweetly burping horns to certified classics and easy-listening fluff, Elvis wasn't in any mood to be his old self.
Pierrotlike in a boxy black tux, his hair short and added girth rounding his look, he evinced a high-torch style in performing ballads from his new album with Bacharach — and interpreting Burt tunes such as "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "My Little Red Book."
Taken in short doses, the collaborations are strong stuff. "God Give Me Strength" is a fervently transcendent expression of longing. "What's Her Name Today?" smolders more subtly. As ill-suited as Costello's nasal voice and piercing vibrato are to mainstream demands, he is a master at projecting unvarnished passion. His phrasing cagily combines the sincerity of a popular vocalist with the cutting resolve of a rocker.
But the more you hear the Costello-Bacharach songs, the more alike they sound — and the more they pale in terms of melodic incident and simple word power to the vintage works of Bacharach and lyricist Hal David. Suffice it to say that "This House is Empty Now" is no "A House is Not a Home."
When Costello wasn't accosted by generic backup singers, he had success exploiting the narrow range of the songs with a stringent adult romanticism — a hard-boiled answer to Charles Aznavour. But the slickly soulful overtones of the three female vocalists stylistically straitjacketed him.
Spotlighted during Bacharach's medleys, the singers left you thinking how important real stylists such as Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield were to the composer's success. His own parched vocals sounded like drywall. But limited to a hushed reading of "Alfie," they had an affecting strength.
Among the self-penned oldies Costello did sing, the Bacharach-inspired "Accidents Will Happen" and "Alison" were done up — and done in — by full-bore orchestrations that had the jarring inconsistency of honey mixed with acid. The last thing dressing-down lyrics need is to be dressed up in strings.
"Veronica," on the other hand, was the evening's highlight. Fiercely strumming an acoustic guitar opposite his brilliant longtime pianist, Steve Nieve (who as second keyboardist to Bacharach was mostly wasted), Elvis brought the house alive with his energy and special attitude. Whoever the real Elvis is, this one's aim was truest.