Early in his career, Elvis Costello — who told one reporter that his chief motivations were "revenge and guilt" — was known to perform the Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself." Audiences who fell in love with Costello originals like "Watching The Detectives" and "Lipstick Vogue" may have been surprised, but it suggested that he was ultimately less interested in revenge and guilt than in solid songwriting. Eventually Costello began working with the illustrious Mr. Bacharach (who was one of pop's most legendary composers long before his appearance in Austin Powers). The result is the recent album Painted From Memory; touring behind that album brings Costello and Bacharach to the Chicago Theatre on Friday.
Burt Bacharach, like Paul McCartney, has been saddled with a bum rap as the guy who writes sappy songs you hear at weddings. Did you ever find yourself having to act as an influence?
No, I didn't think I needed to. ... The people who would really be troubled by (the idea of my working) with Burt ... imagine he has something to do with easy listening — some of which (is) the side-effect of the current interest in him, which is inspired by this rather kitschy use of his songs in comedy films and stuff. That's no fault of his. And you couldn't make a joke about the usage (of Bacharach and David's "I Say a Little Prayer") in My Best Friend's Wedding unless you could believably propose that everybody in that room does know those songs, so you'd have to be famous to begin with. You couldn't do that with my songs! The only people who would find fault with this stuff would be people who just haven't understood anything I've been doing.
While both of you are capable of uptempo work, you've downplayed that on the new album in favor of slower and mid-tempo arrangements.
I just felt that the strongest music was going to be found in these slower tempos. Then your personal clock just adjusts to that, because then a medium-tempo song sounds fast. All these songs are like stories that I recognize so clearly, either as feelings that I've had, or I've seen or have experienced, but they're mixed up in all these different stories. Heaven knows if I were living this life, it'd be pretty exhausting! (laughter) I have lived this life — just not all today!
The "Do your lyrics reflect your life?" question has always dogged you for some reason. When you released "I Want You" (a particularly harrowing song from 1986's Blood and Chocolate) people were seriously asking if it was about your wife.
Yeah, it's extraordinary. I think that sort of thing has gotten worse as time's gone on. People accepted entirely that songs were SINCERE in the days of Cole Porter or Gershwin or Rodgers and Hart — or for that matter, later on. Nobody thought (Bacharach and David's) songs were INSINCERE because they didn't run around saying, "Eh, do you know the way to San Jose?" (laughter) That's a STUPID idea. Once somebody has had the courage to say something brave about something ugly, there's somebody somewhere that sees a pound note in it and says "Send out for five more like that." You end up with a trumped-up kind of authenticity.