New wavers everywhere were hanging themselves by their skinny ties over the news that Elvis Costello made an entire album with pop schlockmeister Burt Bacharach. Elvis had never made a secret of his affection for the man, consummated with a collaboration for Alison Anders' Brill Building homage Grace Of My Heart. (The song in question, the emotional "God Give Me Strength," took a similar role in the film as a far-reaching flop along the lines of "River Deep – Mountain High.") Rather than leave it buried on a soundtrack, the new dynamic duo continued to collaborate by fax, and the song was given pole position as the closer on the resultant album.
It was suggested that Elvis and Burt would simply revisit songs from their own careers, but instead they came up with twelve new tracks that sounded like they came from either Burt's '60s heyday or Elvis' own catalog. Painted From Memory is lushly orchestrated and does not include a single song that could be classified as fast, yet fans of EC's slower, prettier songs will enjoy having their heartstrings tugged.
"In The Darkest Place" is a good way to start the album, with its late-night mood and just enough female backing vocals to set a standard for the rest. "Toledo" begins with those trademark Bacharach flugelhorns. The city captured here is the one in Spain, a citadel not far from Escorial, which contains the staircase that inspired "13 Steps Lead Down" on Brutal Youth.
"I Still Have That Other Girl" is very pretty, and it's impressive how he nails the key change. "This House Is Empty Now" is obvious subject matter for an Elvis song, but he really pulls it off. Even the guitar solo is succinct and to the point, but his vibrato starts to get a little tiring. "Tears At The Birthday Party" may or may not be the same cake from "Alison," and we've reached the more trying part of the album. "Such Unlikely Lovers" recalls Steely Dan at their most sterile, and features the most fitting line to sum up the album: "Can you believe it's happening?"
The second half opens with the melancholy "My Thief," which recalls mid-'70s Tom Waits, and some of Joe Jackson's more "serious" compositions, especially the female response at the end. "The Long Division" is very reminiscent of parts of Punch The Clock, vocally and arrangement-wise, and is the least of the album. Luckily, Elvis's love of the old Sinatra late-night concept albums shines on the title track.
"The Sweetest Punch" brings some well-appreciated tempo back to the proceedings, before the haunting drama of "What's Her Name Today?" And again, the inclusion of "God Give Me Strength" works as something of an epilogue to remind us how it all started.
For those who gave it a chance, Painted From Memory quickly overcame the danger of being truly awful. It has just the right amount of syrup to break your heart, and if you put any of these songs onto any of his other, punkier albums, they would still make perfect sense. We could almost forgive the hat.