The pairing of two of the most influential songwriters of their respective generations is not as bizarre as it might seem. Even back when he was the seething, bespectacled face of the New Wave 20 years ago, Elvis Costello was fascinated by the sophisticated pop craftsmanship of Burt Bacharach. Their previous one-time songwriting collaboration for the soundtrack of Grace of My Heart in 1996 was a dizzying success, tapping the Bacharach potential in Costello even as it made more demands on his voice.
The only other song previewed from this collaboration (at a Bacharach tribute concert in New York last spring) seemed too dependent on Bacharach conventions; its title, "This House Is Empty Now," a seeming rewrite of "A House Is Not a Home."
And while there are ballads on Painted from Memory that are just as thrilling, structurally and vocally, as the soundtrack number — especially the stirring "I Still Have That Other Girl" — it is the breezy, more up-tempo numbers that bring out the best in Costello.
The witty, site-specific, San Jose-like musings on "Toledo" (complete with flugelhorns) are a high point in his most Costello-sounding song, "The Sweetest Punch."
Like his previous work with Paul McCartney, Costello benefits from the melodic knack of his collaborator, whose presence on piano and conducting ensures swelling and echoing female choruses.
Costello seems elated at having a kindred soul as serious about sophisticated pop — and as talented — as he is. He also seems to relish finding a way out of his rock past toward a more mature, demanding pop field that will enrich us all for years to come.