As two of the most gifted and distinctive tunesmiths of their respective generations, Costello and Bacharach will forever be judged against the nearly impossible standards of their best material. So in collaborating on this album of new songs — composed by Bacharach with Costello's support, with lyrics and vocals by Costello — they are shouldering quite a collective burden.
That challenge yields impressive, if mixed, results. The deftly syncopated, breezily bittersweet "Toledo" sounds like vintage Bacharach, and the pining "In the Darkest Place" and "My Thief" evidence both artists' enduring knack for sophisticated but deeply poignant melodies.
(The tastefully lush arrangements, written and conducted by Bacharach and performed by rock musicians and an orchestra — and by the composer on piano — recapture much of the pensive elegance that characterized classic recordings of his old songs.)
"Such Unlikely Lovers" and "Tears at the Birthday Party" are clever and charming, but have less of the richness that distinguishes Bacharach's and Costello's music from that of their many imitators.
Most strikingly, though, Costello contributes some of his most virtuosic singing and emotionally intuitive lyric-writing to date. On "In the Darkest Place" and "The Sweetest Punch," he blends wistful irony and gentle pathos as adroitly as Bacharach's old collaborator Hal David did, while on "Painted From Memory" and "This House Is Empty," he ponders broken relationships with shattering directness.
All told, then, the Costello-Bacharach synergy sparkles, and demands a sequel. The duo will perform at the Universal Amphitheatre on Oct. 20.