Details, October 1998

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What the world needs now

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello sings the praises of his coolest collaborator, Burt Bacharach

The tune is barely audible but easy to recognize. It's a slow afternoon at a restaurant in Punta Arenas, the last city in continental Chilean Patagonia. My wife and I are heading for the ends of the earth, but even down here they know "What the World Needs Now." Then again, I'm more inclined to notice these things, as my luggage contains handwritten manuscripts of eleven new songs co-written with Burt Bacharach. When this holiday is over, there will only be a few months before Burt and I go into the studio together, and there are still words to be written.

Whether you first heard "I Say A Little Prayer" as sung by Aretha Franklin or as performed by the cast of My Best Friend's Wedding, you probably know more Bacharach songs than you imagine. The man who was musical director for Marlene Dietrich; who wrote and produced all those mighty songs like "Walk On By" and "Anyone Who Had A Heart" for Dionne Warwick; and who composed film scores and a Broadway musical — often at the same time — is bound to have a unique relationship to popular music. Rock 'n' soul artists have thrived on his tunes, but as a songwriter he probably has more in common with Richard Rodgers (for me, "Alfie" is right up there with "My Funny Valentine"), in the way that he might turn his talents one minute to an easy-going tune and the next to a deep ballad suggesting emotions that go beyond even the finest lyric.

However, all these gifts are not without their price. This is also a man who will arrive at the studio clutching a 3:00 A.M. memorandum because a musical thought has disturbed his sleep. I think this might be why we get along.

Our collaboration began in 1995, when we wrote "God Give Me Strength" for the motion picture Grace Of My Heart. The production deadline meant we had to write the song over a transatlantic telephone line. We didn't actually work in a room together until we met up in New York to record the tune for the movie's closing credits. Naturally, in the yellow cab on the way to the session, the radio was playing "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?"

My first image of Burt at work was with a score spread out before him on a grand piano in a deserted studio. All the loose ends of the tune had received his attention. The vocal now eased in on a flugelhorn melody, and timpani announced a string orchestra. It was the kind of record that I could only have dreamt of making. The session went so well that I asked Burt if we might write and record an entire album together. "God Give Me Strength" suggested the seductive side of melancholy, but it's hard to describe our new tunes without telling you what to feel. I've heard Burt call them "heartbreak songs." Perhaps titles like "Tears At The Birthday Party" and "The Long Division" may offer a clue. In "My Thief", there is a man who would rather have haunting dreams than no dreams at all.

I have often looked to Bacharach songs for inspiration. Even in 1977, the Attractions and I would perform "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" to audiences who weren't really expecting torch songs. My tunes "Accidents Will Happen" and "Just A Memory" took their cue from Burt's writing. But I think it would have been foolish for me to turn up with my electric guitar and expect it to work, so I wrote my share of the music at the piano.

Our songwriting sessions usually lasted for about five days, either at Burt's music room by the Pacific or around a rented piano in a New York hotel suite. The way we worked was different for each song. Sometimes I would sketch out the entire opening melody; other times I would simply be lyricist to a complete Bacharach composition. For some songs, Burt would take an idea of mine and stretch a phrase here and change a chord there until it became stronger and more distinctive.

More lyric-driven songwriters will happily add or steal a beat or two in order to accommodate a fancy line. Burt, on the other hand, has an uncanny sense of melodic shape that is rarely negotiable. He has a gift for knowing when to delay and when to release a knockout shift in the harmony. More simply, he knows that the silences are as important as the sounds.

Finding the right words caused me a few sleepless nights. These songs certainly changed my way of writing. When a line became too elaborate, I found that the music rejected it like a bad heart transplant after only a couple of days on the manuscript.

In "Toledo", a man comes home to a red light blinking on his telephone machine. He knows that his lover suspects his infidelity, but he tries to delay a confession. At this point in the song, Burt suggested that the background voices enter to pass judgement, and he gave me a handful of notes. I responded with the line "You hear her voice: 'How could you do that?'" Now those chiding words are followed by a nine-note phrase for flugelhorns that is so recognizably "Bacharach" it seems to have always existed.

Burt has written all but one of the orchestrations. (The string chart for "Painted From Memory" was by Johnny Mandel.) Although we've discussed almost every detail in advance, there's nothing quite like hearing the full picture emerge for the first time. In two weeks we put together the final pieces of each recording. There were two days with a twenty-four piece string orchestra; sessions for background voices, brass, and woodwinds; and a day to add all kinds of tuned percussion instruments. It's one thing to say "Bass flute and low chime play in the introduction of 'In The Darkest Place,'" but it's another to know — as Burt knows — that it will work beautifully.

Ultimately, this is still essentially a vocal record. Much of the singing was done live at the rhythm section sessions, me taking cues from Burt as he conducted the band from the piano. It has all been about making it possible for me to perform the songs. People who can only imagine that Burt is a cool and laid-back sort of fellow would be astounded by his energy and intensity in the studio.

Once again I get back to my hotel sometime after midnight. The pianist in the cocktail bar is playing for the last few customers. I am nearly across the lobby before I recognize a few bars of the tune. You probably know what I'm going to say by now — It's that man again. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

Elvis Costello's collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory, is his eighteenth album of new material and his first for Mercury Records.


Details, October 1998

Elvis Costello writes about Burt Bacharach.


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Page scan.

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Cover and contents page.


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