GQ, November 1998

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My aim is blue

Sarah Vowell

They are men of many words, and only one of them talks. But when Elvis Costello croons to the music of Burt Bacharach,
no hearts are left unbruised.

What do you get when you cross Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach? Pop? Rock? Transatlantic orchestral love-punk? Costello calls the genre employed on their lush collaborative album, Painted From Memory, "the songs of seductive melancholy." The twelve pieces they've made together, with Costello writing the lyrics and singing and Bacharach taking on most of the composing and the arranging, are bittersweet indeed, the stylish ranting of abandoned lovers in abandoned rooms with only the odd upright piano for company, sobbing through a month of gloomy Sundays.

Would you expect anything less of Costello, whose best love lyric (from "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes") goes, "I said that I'm so happy I could die / She said, 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy"? Or Bacharach, who for nearly forty years has scored a truckload of heartsick hits, such as "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and "Mexican Divorce"?

Painted From Memory has been conceived at an interesting moment in the careers of both men. Bacharach hasn't been this popular since his '60s heyday. Even Oasis loves him, and they hate everybody. Does Bacharach's newfound hipness derive from a rediscovery of sturdy arrangements and poppy instrumentation? Or from nostalgia for the days when you could smoke in the nightclubs of the promised land, when men were men and women were Angie Dickinson? Either way, it's OK. He made a cameo appearance in Austin Powers, tinkling the ivories and singing "What the World Needs Now" on top of a double-decker bus. He basked in a television tribute earlier this year called Bacharach: One Amazing Night, in which his songs (many of them written with lyricist Hal David) were performed by everyone from his old pal Dionne Warwick to Sheryl Crow. And this month Rhino records releases The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a knockout three-CD box set of seventy-five Burt classics performed by a staggering list, including Dusty Springfield, the Shirelles, Herb Alpert, the Drifters and Tom "What's New Pussycat?" Jones.

As for Elvis Costello, his debut album came out only a couple of weeks before his namesake crapped out in '77. If you were the sort of English or American citizen of the 1980s who listened to love songs while hating your government, Costello's voice was constantly on your radio, on your record player, in your head. Everyone you could trust was a fan. His best music had all you needed: punk's moralist edge; the catchiest hooks; mean, funny poetry; and that voice — urgent and sexy and wounded and smart. And for someone who has written so many classic songs ("Alison," "Radio Radio," "Watching the Detectives"), he has been a surprisingly voracious experimentalist. In the past decade, he's interpreted Kurt Weill, collaborated with a string quartet, scored television shows and appeared in the Spice Girls movie.

Now he has settled into a remarkable recording situation: He recently signed jointly with Mercury Records and Polygram Classics & Jazz. Presumably, the contract will allow him the freedom to explore various sides of his fractured musical psyche. "It's not like there's any one way to think about music," he says, thrilled with the setup that reflects his catholic tastes. "The ideal situation is where you listen to Tortoise and this record. And to Duke Ellington. And to Stravinsky and Hanson and Shania Twain and George Jones. Because that's what I do. I listen to everything, and I try and work out what's useful to me."

We were talking about my favorite song of his, "Little Palaces," from 1986's King of America — a jagged, passionate downer in which he doesn't so much sing as spit. I was trying to match up that song's slamming acoustics and accusatory lyrics, where "there's a rat in someone's bedroom," with Burt Bacharach's present partner in croon. On first listen, Costello's Painted From Memory voice is polished, professional, smooth even. Then you notice that, beneath the sheen, the stories he's telling have the same emotional tenor they've always had. These forlorn lvoers aren't skipping off to the Chapel of Love. They're slumping home to those crummy little flats in "Little Palaces."

"Yeah," Costello says. "They're going there, and they're going to smash all the furniture! They're just going to do it in a very quiet, frightening voice."

Costello doesn't really care if fans of his harsher aesthetics don't make the leap to Painted From Memory. "If I lived and died by making that sound," he says, "I think it would be kind of sad. Even Elvis Presley didn't always record at Sun. Maybe some people would say he should have done. But, no, he had to go through all the drama of his life and all the mistakes and be a human. Even if it ended tragically — well, so what? It isn't all a big fairy tale. Not everything ends happily."


"No. You may have noticed."

There were giant hints right from his career's teeth-grinding start that Costello had a dreamy side, full of love for the velvety standards that so obviously make up his record collection: that gripping, a cappella cover of "My Funny Valentine," lyrics about listening to Nat King Cole, the way Costello's "Indoor Fireworks" quotes from "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

Costello has always been a Bacharach fan, recording "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" way back in the way back. He says he responds to the music's "inherent threat. There's an ominous nature in a lot of Burt's most heartfelt songs. Sometimes it lurks just beyond where the lyric lays off."

This is quite a compliment, coming from a guy who wrote a number daydreaming of the death of Margaret Thatcher so he could "Tramp the Dirt Down" on her grave. For Costello, sharing a bill with Bacharach isn't a novelty. It's more like a family tradition. Back in 1963, the wee lad Costello (ne' Declan McManus) watched not only his father, big-band singer Ross McManus, but two of his future collaborators perform on TV before Her Majesty. "Now it's a bit of an arcane thing," he says, "but when I was growing up the Royal Command Performance was the big television variety show of the year. They would have very big stars. Somebody like Jimmy Cagney would come out at the end. He wouldn't do anything; he'd just come out, and everyone would say, 'Wow. Jimmy Cagney.'" Costello says it was wonderful to watch his dad on TV, but "an even bigger thrill was when he was on a bill with the Beatles. I couldn't believe it." He made his father get their autographs (including that of Paul McCartney, with whom Costello has written songs). And, as if that weren't enough, thirty-five years later Costello would up making a record with Burt Bacharach, who, on that night in 1963, was musical director for the Blue Angel herself, Marlene Dietrich.

Bacharach and Costello were first thrown together by director Allison Anders, who asked them to write a song for her 1996 film, Grace of My Heart. The movie, a tribute to Brill Building songwriting and loosely based on the biography of Carole King, tanked. It did have two striking elements: the worst performance (and hairdo) of normally fine actor John Turturro's career and the pretty Bacharach and Costello tune "God Give Me Strength." The two men had less than a week to write it, communicating through answering machines and faxes. What was it like for Costello the first time he came home to find a message from Burt Bacharach on his answering machine? "I'd be blase' to say it wasn't exciting," he confesses, adding that he was slightly shy about singing and playing back into Bacharach's machine. "Everybody must have done this, when you leave a message and wish you hadn't. Not because I had any doubt about the musical ideas — it ended up being the opening phrase of the song — but it's a daunting thing to do. It's Burt. What's he going to think?"

Collaborating on that song "gave us a platform, a start," says Bacharach. "I liked Elvis. He liked me."

They look as if they like each other, even if they don't look as if they belong together. They sit side by side as they finish up the album in Los Angeles. Bacharach, with that august face and legendary coif, resembles a marble portrait of a particularly benign Roman emperor. (He says that, for him, Painted From Memory has been a "four-haircut record.") He speaks quite quietly — in the manner of those accustomed to being listened to — when he speaks at all. But then Burt Bacharach's first language is sound. He's more fluent in flugelhorn than in English.

Costello, on the other hand, suffers a writer's affliction: He is tortured by words. Costello comes from the rock-and-roll, I'll-make-you-listen school of conversation. Even his socks are loud — orange, which matches the tint of his glasses. The dapper angle of his straw hat recalls another singing colleague, who just so happened to record "Strangers in the Night" in this very studio.

How do these two opposing forces play out musically? There are quiet moments on Painted From Memory, moments that approach silence, but the opposite is also true. It is, curiously, the loudest record Elvis Costello has ever made. Bacharach has written sweeping crescendos for him that demand verbs such as "to belt." Costello calls these buildups "the illusion of sound," explaining, "When you start as quietly as we do on some of these records, it does get huge. And particularly with a twenty-four-piece string section supporting you. Burt is very, very good with the architecture of sound."

Dynamics is one of Bacharach's trademarks. This is the man who, on the classic "I Say a Little Prayer," plops his listeners down into a low-key first verse about getting ready for work and swoops them into one of the most gigantic, redemptive passages in pop history, the Forever! And ever! utopia of the chorus.

"I think (songs have) to warrant going up and down, to have peaks and valleys," professes Bacharach. He compares good songs to good careers. "It's like some singers were around for just a little period of time. They were one-dimensional. They sang ferociously hard, and it kind of wears them out after a while. And wears the audience out. They lose the audience. One of the best things you can have, as a performer, is to be able to do things" — and here he pinches his fingers together — "this small. You have to be able to tell a story."

Painted From Memory begins with "In the Darkest Place," a heartbreaking, piano-backed ballad of love lost. Costello and Bacharach want the listener to leave the sunny world behind and traipse on into this record, where all the curtains are drawn. Join them, won't you? "There's a place you go to, with regard to these songs, where, like in a very dark room, after a while your eyes do adjust and you can see. And it's not the worst place you've ever been," Costello says. In fact, "sometimes it's better there, particularly if you're feeling at odds with the world or your circumstances. That's why people go to nightclubs. Rather than be lonely in a dark room, they go in a crowded dark room. And they don't always go out in the daytime, where they can see happy people around them and feel less than perfect."

This is what passes for the bright side in Costello's world, and it's mirrored in Bacharach's. "I've seen this thing come over Burt a number of times," Costello says, describing mood-indigo swings. "And it might be triggered by any number of personal things, which are none of my business. But I think anybody who writes music of any substance is inclined to quite deep jumps like that. I know that I am. I can get very, very, very down."

Costello reveals that when he was writing the lyrics to "In the Darkest Place," he kept a reproduction of Albrecht Durer's Melancholia on his music stand. How marvelously depressive. (Durer, who didn't have Painted From Memory in his record collection, once wrote, "A boy who practices painting too much may be overcome by melancholy. He should learn to play string instruments and thus be distracted to cheer his blood.") "It's so beautiful," Costello says of the sixteenth-century engraving, which pictures a winged woman hunched in thought as a city populated by presumably peppier people glows in the distance. "It was both an inspiration and a warning. It was a warning that it mustn't be this far." And it was an apt choice, really, considering the picture's whole point is that creativity derives from sorrowful revery, that people who draw people are the gloomiest people in the world.

Let's hear it for the sad songs, the tragic laments, the minor key, the way Burt Bacharach can slip in a string section (and not necessarily the blood-cheering kind) and pull your heartstrings. Bacharach has a polite, if powerful, way of shushing things. You can almost picture him doing it, picture his hand cajoling the drummer down to softness. The popular impression is that his arrangements are baroque affairs, but actually they're the sparest of structures. The trumpet player on "In the Darkest Place" has all of about six notes written on his score, but what notes! Bacharach tacks a consoling two-note figure on to the end of the verses, as if to say, "There, there," when Costello's lonely guy lets him get a word in edgewise. The song has a coda in which Bacharach has added a whisper of background singers and strings that makes you feel as if the sun might come up after all.

Bacharach mentions a song on the album called "I Still Have That Other Girl," a heavy tune about a man's mental dallying — he still has that other girl in his head. Bacharach points out, "There's nothing that goes for the jugular on that song."

"Because it's a different kind of story," agrees Costello. "The guy's confessing an infidelity. When you're confessing something like that, it's all in a breath."

Costello says one of his goals for the stories he sings in Painted From Memory was "to keep them so that more people can understand them." His meanings have been known to be elusive, which is why he appeals to pop cryptographers. Part of the reason "Little Palaces" is my favorite is that I'm not all that positive what it's about. The royal family? Architectural criticism? This time around, he's shooting for the universality of the standards. "Lyrically," he says, the new songs are "not so quirky in the expression of feeling. But that doesn't make them any less felt. I think it's best for this particular music to not indulge myself in very secret language."

In wanting a wide appeal, does Elvis want to be more like Burt? Of the seventy-five Bacharach compositions on The Look of Love box, a whopping fifty-five of them made it onto some sort of chart. Fifty-five! Such a track record suggests he understands something about getting across to a lot of people and that he has a knack for picking fantastic collaborators.

But to be like Burt would involve talking a whole hell of a lot less. Surprisingly, that fits right in with Costello's plans. "My aim is to write no words in the distant future. I would like to become a good enough musician not to use words. Maybe I'll never get there, but it's better than having no ambition. To have an ambition that you maybe never fulfill makes you try harder."

Until then Costello seems content to talk about not wanting to talk. He says to Bacharach that Burt's reason for collaborating was "founded in musical understanding. Mine was done in lyrical understanding. And, really what we've done in writing together is make those two things join together on occasion. Driven by lyric, driven by music — "

"Hopefully, magically and successfully," pipes in Bacharach, finishing Costello's sentence. For once.


GQ, November 1998

Sarah Vowell interviews Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, and reviews Painted From Memory.


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Photographer unknown.

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Photographer unknown.

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