Pop's new odd couple took to the stage backed by an orchestra Friday at the Chicago Theatre, and if nothing else it gave listeners an appreciation for a performer who wasn't there: Dionne Warwick.
The singer may be a Jay Leno punch line with her recent late-night role as a shill for psychic hot lines, but in the '60s, Warwick was the foremost interpreter of the tunes written by Bacharach and lyricist Hal David.
Warwick glided over Bacharach's convoluted melodies — which incorporated elements of 20th Century classical music and jazz, as well as R&B and Tin Pan Alley pop — with deceptive ease; she was an understated but technically gifted singer who redefined the concept of supper-club soul until Luther Vandross came along.
Though he came of age in the punk clubs, Costello is no latecomer to the art of tortured elegance; he's a Bacharach disciple who has been writing ballads in the master's style for two decades. (Some longtime Costello fans still haven't gotten over the shock of seeing the erstwhile angry young man open his 1981 tour with a crooning solo version of "Shot With His Own Gun.")
Decked out in a black tux in stark contrast to the lean, beaming Bacharach with his open-collar gray suit, Costello didn't so much slip into Bacharach's melodies as wrestle them to the ground.
Fidgeting and gesturing, straining for high notes and sometimes stumbling when he nailed one, Costello revealed every bump in Bacharach's complex arrangements. Meters shift, melodies twist, octaves leap; Costello's love for dense, multisyllabic wordplay only added to the sense that the duo's recent collaborations are sometimes more like elaborate puzzles that must be solved rather than elegant pop truffles to be savored.
It was fascinating to watch the perhaps-unintentional drama that played out between Costello and Bacharach — the singer in a fight for his life, the arranger at his grand piano the picture of martini-sipping California cool.
Bacharach's arrangements don't so much groove as billow; they are plush as feather mattresses, right down to the anonymous cooing of the background vocalists. Their beauty is in the details: the bells that chime in "The Sweetest Punch," the descending piano chords of "In the Darkest Place," the melancholy flugelhorn, with its echoes of the Warwick hit "Walk on By," in "Toledo."
Against this silky backdrop, Costello shadowboxed with heartache. He dispensed with the one bright tune of the night — "Such Unlikely Lovers" — early on and then devoted himself to songs in which he has been left betrayed and adrift, haunted by a former lover's face in a dream or her laughter from behind a closed bedroom door.
"She is gone, and I must accept it," Costello cried to no avail on "Painted From Memory."
But the night's greatest success was a less-vaunted collaboration, between Costello and his longtime pianist Steve Nieve. With sparse acoustic duets on "Almost Blue" and "Still Too Soon to Know," they achieved a fragile intimacy that even Bacharach and Warwick might have admired.